The People's Republic at 50: From October 9, 1999

China is not only the most populous country on earth; it also has the world's oldest civilization. It would be no surprise, therefore, if the Chinese were not greatly stirred by the passage of a mere half-century. Last week, however, Beijing engineered a massive celebration of the 50th anniversary of Mao Zedongs proclamation of The Peoples Republic on Oct 1, 1949.
 
The fanfares, speeches and parades were certainly justified, because the past 50 years have been the most momentous in Chinese history. Under an iron-handed Communist regime, China has for the first time become a unified nation.

It has also become an international presence formidable enough to make its neighbors apprehensive and the rest of the world reflective. In fact, while the Chinese are celebrating themselves, Americans should take this as an occasion to reassess their own China policy. This might conveniently be done in terms of three issues currently troubling Sino-American relations.

Espionage.
Congress and the press have been much exercised this year by reports of Chinese thefts of US. nuclear secrets, but this is largely a phony issue. Spying must be taken for granted in the post-Eden world of power politics. Of course the Chinese spy on us, but so do our good friends the British. We, in turn, spy on them both. If Washington thinks it is falling behind in this sinister game, let it strengthen its counterintelligence.

Taiwan. Henry Kissinger calls this "the most explosive issue" in Chinese-US. relations. In an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post on Sept. 7, he worried about what he sees as a drift toward military confrontation over Taiwan. Even those who think him an alarmist cannot dismiss the nagging fear that he may be right.

To avoid the danger of war, leaders in Beijing, Taipei and Washington should begin by watching their language. When they talk about Taiwan, they often assume a bellicose tone because they are addressing themselves in the first place to their own constituents. This is particularly true of Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, who energized his fellow citizens this past summer by declaring that from now on Taiwan should deal with The People's Republic as one state to another. That sounded like a declaration of independence. In reality there are two Chinas at the moment. Beijing, however, will never admit as much, and it is determined to repossess Taiwan by force if necessary. For the present, Washington should continue to subscribe to the theory that there is "one China," of which Taiwan is part, and advise President Lee to cool his rhetoric. In the long run, the people of Taiwan may freely choose to reunite with the mainland without Beijing's resorting to aggression. At the same time, US. leaders will have to make clear that Chinese aggression is not an acceptable solution to the issue of Taiwan. Washington must be firm without being bellicose.

Human Rights. China was unified at the cost of enormous and cruel repression of human rights. After 50 years, that policy remains in force, although there have been some concessions recently, such as local elections. But neither political dissent nor apolitical quasi-spiritual movements like Falun Gong, which was banned last July, are tolerated.

Religious organizations are permitted only if, like the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, they are officially registered. Groups not registered, like the so-called underground Catholic Church that has steadfastly preserved union with Rome, are not recognized and are often harassed. The Catholic News Service reported last month that in preparation for the Oct. 1 celebrations, a number of priests and nuns were detained after being rounded up in police sweeps. In the 1950s, China not only subjugated the Tibetans; by abolishing Buddhism it drove the Dalai Lama and 100,000 others into exile.

It is sad that most Americans seem untroubled by China's systematic violation of the dignity and rights of the human person. There are, however, both pragmatic and principled reasons for concern. An expansionist nuclear power like China is a threat to international security as long as its Government is harshly authoritarian. Even were this not the case, a good argument can be made for the ethical position taken by Representative Richard A Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, who said in an interview two years ago: "I think we must stand for human rights all over the globe .... I think that's what we must do with China."

President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright may say, as did their predecessors, that they have often spoken firmly to the Chinese about human rights. Straightforward but nonbelligerent communication of our concerns about human rights must be a consistent part of our China policy. But this should not take a permanent back seat to economic interests. In fact, without human rights and a respect for the rule of law, economic interests inevitably suffer.

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