Leading Article: The difficulties of megaphone diplomacy

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The Independent Culture
PRESIDENT CLINTON cleared his diary yesterday to defend his forthcoming visit to China, the first by a US president since the Tiananmen Square massacre nine years ago. He said: "Seeking to isolate China will not free one more political dissident, will not open one more church to those who wish to worship, will do nothing to encourage China to live by the laws it has written." He is right to argue against a policy of isolating a nation of 1 billion people, even if this caricature of the opposition to his visit is unfair. He has been assailed by a coalition of human rights campaigners, Taiwan lobbyists, Republicans complaining about Chinese funds going into Democratic party coffers and anti-abortionists who do not like China's "one child" policy. Of these, the critics who really matter are those who want to apply pressure on the Chinese government about human rights. The appalling treatment of dissidents and minorities such as the Tibetans is a serious charge in the court of world opinion.

But the President is right to argue for a policy of constructive engagement. It is naive to expect the Chinese to stop rounding up dissidents for the sake of a bit more foreign trade. What will liberalise China is the exchange of goods, information and ideas.

Precisely the same considerations should rule the British government's attitude to China although, once again, the declaration of an explicitly "ethical" foreign policy has given rise to the expectation that Tony Blair and Robin Cook should indulge in gesture-diplomacy. Mr Blair may have been going a little far in welcoming Zhu Rongji, the Chinese Prime Minister, as a fellow moderniser. But the argument that economic reform will lead to social reform remains sound. Better for Mr Blair and Mr Clinton to lecture the Chinese on the basics of human rights on trade missions than at the United Nations. And far better to lecture Mr Zhu, as Mr Clinton will, on the steps at one end of Tiananmen Square than by megaphone across the Pacific.