Leading Article: Clinton's Chinese conundrum

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON has done a sharp U-turn on China. During the election campaign, under the impact of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, he criticised President Bush for being too soft. This year, after a detailed policy review, he has switched to positive engagement. Last week he met the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, in Seattle. Little was achieved, but the symbolism was enough to start with. Mr Clinton has decided that China is the rising Asian superpower and he had better do business with it.

Yet he cannot ignore China's appalling human rights record. In that respect he faces questions similar to those that preoccupied his predecessors in their relations with the Soviet Union. What role should human rights play in political and economic relations? Should he insist that China treat its people better before relations can improve, or would an unconditional expansion of contacts nudge China faster towards the modern world?

Comparisons with the Soviet Union should not be taken too far. The Soviet leaders needed many things from the West, such as trade, legitimation and avoidance of war, so they were open to negotiation. Moreover, a part of the Russian tradition has always been European, so Western values were not wholly alien. China has different and prouder traditions, a greater sense of self-sufficiency, and is not in nuclear confrontation with the West, so it can afford to be less responsive to Western opinion.

Nevertheless, it is not wholly immune to general principles of human behaviour and economic development. Its economy is growing fast but unevenly and is increasingly dependent on foreign investment. The picture of a booming country accelerating towards capitalism has been challenged by an American expert, Vaclav Smil, who says the legacy of mismanagement and pollution makes growth more fragile and patchy than it seems.

This year China will probably have a trade deficit of dollars 10bn, compared with last year's surplus of dollars 4bn. Market reforms will impose heavy social and political stresses on a growing population of ambitious and acquisitive young people. Political isolation would come at a heavy price. The fact that China's leaders wanted the Olympic Games so badly and are responding to the switch in Washington suggests that they understand this.

The answer to Mr Clinton's conundrum is to combine expanding contacts with flexible constraints that can be tightened or loosened in response to the internal and external behaviour of the regime. China's leaders play by different rules but they are also realists.