White House Contenders: Avoid Negative Sound Bites on Beijing

The Beijing Olympics coincide with our party conventions heralding the countdown to November’s presidential election. With the world’s media spotlight on China and the United States, both presidential candidates will undoubtedly be tested by unforeseen developments.

Contenders Barack Obama and John McCain should avoid condemning China, and instead signal their intention to develop a personal relationship of trust with their Chinese counterpart soon after taking office. China’s human rights are best advanced through discrete encouragement, not negative sound bites.

In three election campaigns — in 1980, 1992 and 2000 — future U.S. presidents announced their intention to dramatically toughen national policy toward China. In each instance, the United States then endured months or years of costly fumbling. Bill Clinton, for instance, set conditions for approving Most Favored Nation status for China. But when China didn’t show sufficient improvements in human rights, the new president backpedaled and abandoned his policy after damaging the credibility of U.S. policy and Sino-American trust.

Since President Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, all subsequent chief executives have ultimately stayed the course with the People’s Republic. The logic is simple: China has massive capacity to affect the world for better or worse. Cooperating with Beijing may challenge U.S. values, but the bond between nations improves global equanimity.

Presidential candidates should signal China’s leaders that they value a constructive and cooperative relationship with China. Personal relationships of trust are highly valued. The Chinese will react negatively if a new president throws difficult issues on the table before establishing such trust.

China’s power is growing rapidly, as its economy expands at about 10 percent annually. Corporations see China’s cost-effective manufacturing base and massive new consumer market as keys to survival, while countries rich in natural resources see the Chinese market as a key to their competitiveness. China’s leaders and diplomats are translating economic clout into global political leverage. And, their military, the People’s Liberation Army, is gradually gaining impressive strength.

China’s rise may pose the most important foreign policy challenge to the United States in the 21st century. Although the Communist Party does not enjoy high legitimacy, its mix of promoting economic growth, selective repression, appeals to nationalism, and management of rapid social change has propelled the nation to greater international respect.

China, as the world’s largest remaining communist state, also poses special challenges to the United States in the field of human rights. Democracy and human rights are our defining national values. Beijing’s violent repression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations destroyed Americans’ hope for rapid political liberalization of China.

Our policy toward China, however, should be tethered firmly to reality and should match action to rhetoric. China’s human rights record is poor, but its people are much freer than were their parents under Mao. To date, U.S. government actions aimed at improving human rights in China have produced very little impact.

Through non-official means, however, the United States has heightened respect for human rights in China. No longer surrounded by the bamboo curtain, China in the 21st century is penetrated by the Internet, international media, and a very “open door.” Freer lifestyles in China are directly tied to China’s opening to the West.

Many stories that come out of the Olympics will be positive, since the Chinese will go all-out to assure smoothly run Games. Other stories, though, may showcase glaring shortcoming in China’s political system, and the vast country’s social and economic disparities. Some stories may be fomented specifically to embarrass the Chinese government.

Our presidential candidates should avoid the temptation to politicize the exceedingly complex China issue. Of course, they should react in a manner true to U.S. principles if there are serious human rights violations. But both contenders should be respectful of the Chinese people’s wishes to see their games honored.

The Chinese people are enormously proud that the Olympics will be held in Beijing. They view this as recognition of how far their country has come. In that spirit, Obama and McCain should both be thinking about a constructive relationship with them that goes beyond November 2008.