IT DIDN'T WORK. EVEN AS CHINA lobbed "test" missiles into the sea near Taiwan's busiest ports, Taiwan deployed an even more formidable weapon: the spectacle of a free people casting votes. More than 10 million Taiwanese, 76 percent of the island's eligible voters, went to the polls last weekend in Taiwan's first direct election of a president. China had hoped its whiff of missilery would hold down the vote for Lee Teng-hui, the incumbent president whom it suspects of harboring secret designs to make Taiwan independent. If anything, China's bluster boosted Lee. The president won a commanding 54 percent of the votes, a huge landslide in a field of four.
The election thus arms Lee with a mandate that Beijing's rulers may privately envy. But it by no means ends the crisis in the Pacific. One United States aircraft-carrier group is already patrolling the waters near Taiwan; another is on the way. The flotilla certified American support of Taiwan, a bit of gunboat diplomacy underlined by Defense Secretary William Perry's jingoistic boast that we have "the best damned navy in the world." Stung in their national pride, the Chinese muttered threats of terrible consequences--"the People's Liberation Army can bury an enemy intruder in a sea of fire"-- if U.S. warships dared to steam through the Taiwan Strait. Congress responded in kind, quickly passing a resolution urging the administration to defend Taiwan against "invasion, missile attack or blockade." In the caldrons of punditry, hot words began to bubble: America has an enemy again, there's a new cold war.
Neither of those statements is true, and neither is likely to come true if the situation is handled with a modicum of sense on all sides. The United States plainly hopes that Lee, now that he has won big at home, will abandon some of his more provocative initiatives (last year, he in effect offered the United Nations a $1 billion bribe if it would grant Taiwan some sort of status in the world body). For the Chinese, having accomplished little with their military maneuvers except to bolster Lee, alarm their neighbors and provide valuable data to the watching monitors of Western intelligence, it's time to call off their missiles and thin out their massive forces in Fujian province facing Taiwan. And, perhaps most important of all, America needs to reshape its own approach to China. China is not just a naughty boy, violating trade norms here and human rights there. China is a growing world power, potentially the largest of all, and ways must be found to bring it into the international community and induce it to abide by the rules. That is the challenge that the Taiwan crisis has brought into high relief, and it will be with us for years to come.
It's a tricky business, dealing with great powers on the rise. "Great powers are like divas; they enter and exit the stage with great tumult," wrote Fareed Zakaria, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. That's often because they carry with them the baggage of perceived slights and historical grievances. In China's case, the colonial era was rich in indignities: land seized, concessions demanded, policies dictated--all by the West and Japan. It should come as no surprise that China would react so stormily to any suggestion of Taiwanese independence: once again Chinese territory seemed threatened.
Outsiders must also be wary of imagining they can have much influence over a place like China. This is a mistake that Americans seem especially prone to make. Perhaps because of their missionary tradition in China, Americans have felt a bond with China that verges on paternalism, a sense that China should welcome them as benevolent guides. As a consequence, the relationship has a giddy, emotional edge. "We have a certain masochism in this country," says Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, a former ambassador to China, "that if anything goes wrong with China it's always our fault." When the communists won the revolution in 1949, American politicians began accusing each other of "losing China." When U.S.-China relations were normalized, U.S. businessmen rushed to Beijing, assuming the Chinese craved the deals they had to offer. Tiananmen ended the most recent love affair, and Americans are gradually developing a less starry-eyed view of the China market (page 36).
There's another dangerous fallacy: to assume that America's problem with China today is similar to its problem with the Soviet Union after World War II. Aha! Another communist country is flexing its new muscles; the answer, once again, must be "containment." Well, no: there's nothing to contain. The U.S.S.R. in 1945 was an expansionary power, ideologically and geographically. China is not. Yes, it gobbled up Tibet back in 1950, but right now it poses no threat to its neighbors except over turf it claims as its own (remember, it considers Taiwan and Hong Kong part of China itself). For American diplomats even to say, as they have, that we are not trying to "contain" China drives the Chinese crazy, because it implies that we might.
The real threat that China poses is to itself. When you look closely at modern China, its weaknesses are alarming: extraordinarily rapid economic growth is taking place very unevenly in a society with only limited rule of law and under a central government whose authority is crumbling. It is fair to ask whether China will turn out to be a superpower or a supernova, a huge star that increases tremendously in brightness as it burns up.
First, look at the government in Beijing. Its ideological authority ran dry years ago; communism lost its aura in China even before it did in the Soviet Union. Now its money is running short: China's taxes are collected by the provinces, which then are supposed to funnel a share to Beijing--but usually shortchange a center they no longer fear. The government is further hobbled by the awkward interregnum caused by the long incapacity--a sort of living death -- of Deng Xiaoping, the 91-year-old "paramount leader" who set the country on its present course of economic liberalization. Jiang Zemin, his evident successor, has nothing like the political stature of Deng, nor does anyone else. In these circumstances the People's Liberation Army (page 41) has developed considerable clout in the higher councils of government. It appears, for example, to be controlling China's Taiwan policy; hence the surprising aggressiveness of recent moves over Taiwan. The army offers one of the few sources of discipline and order in a country that is increasingly worried about anarchy.
Gradually, more and more power is devolving to the provinces and localities. Rich coastal cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou operate pretty much as they please. City or provincial leaders set their own economic targets, court foreign investors, even raise internal trade barriers against the products of other parts of China. The scramble for money has drawn local bureaucrats and even military officers into entrepreneurial schemes that further weaken their ties to the center. One reason the government has found it hard to stamp out the piracy of foreign compact discs, as it promised to do, is that some of the counterfeiters have connections to high-ranking military officials.
The erosion of law and order has opened the way for secret societies and criminal organizations to impose their own discipline. Even some police seem to join in the freebooting. Roadblocks have sprung up on some highways, where travelers will be asked to pay an illicit toll. Not long ago NEWSWEEK'S Beijing bureau chief George Wehrfritz rode a bus from Guigang to Nanning in Guangxi province. On the way, the driver sped through a "toll station" set up by local cops. The police gave chase; when the driver refused to pull over, they drove ahead, evidently to set up a stronger roadblock. But the driver, guided by some passengers, took a detour over dirt roads. Never mind that they were dusty and late: when they got to Nanning, many of the passengers lined up to shake the driver's hand.
Deng's economic reforms have been responsible for some of this chaos. Peasants are growing much less grain because they can get higher prices for other crops. Result: an acute grain shortage that will drain China's treasury (and enrich American farmers) for years. And the huge rural population is engaged in a migration of historic proportions: an estimated 120 million Chinese--equivalent to nearly half the population of the entire United States--have left their ancestral villages for the cities, trying to find jobs in the new economy. This leads to severe urban overcrowding and crime. It also exacerbates regional disparities: the new wealth has flowed to the big coastal cities, and the hinterlands lag way behind. Ethnic strains are also growing more serious: Islamic agitation in the Turkic regions of China's Far West may be an even sharper thorn than Tibet's independence movement.
There is of course one huge beacon of light amid all this gloom, and that is the economy. During the Deng years, from 1978 to 1994, China's real growth rose an average of 9 percent a year. At that rate GNP doubles every eight years; significantly, this was just about the same as Taiwan's rate of growth at a similar stage of its development. Jim Rohwer, chief Asia economist of CS First Boston in Hong Kong and author of the recent book "Asia Rising," estimates that in the year 2025, if the average Chinese reaches the income level of the average Taiwanese today, China's economy will be by far the largest in the world, 1.5 times the size of the U.S. economy and 75 to 80 percent that of the American, Japanese and Western European economies combined. "This would radically change the world's economic, business and financial life," Rohwer writes.
Indeed it would. Might it also transform China's own political life? The history of Asia's boom economies suggests that when authoritarian states grow rich--South Korea and Taiwan are examples--political freedoms follow. China may evolve in similar fashion, but no one in the West should count on things working out that happily. China, for one thing, is very much bigger than Taiwan or Korea, and its fears of the centrifugal forces of democracy are that much greater. Big countries fall apart more easily than small ones. Ask Gorbachev.
So what is the United States to do as the Chinese diva barges her way onto the stage? There is very little choice. Find and forge links of common interest: with China's vast need for the investment and technology that America has to offer, this should not be difficult. These are the ties that will bind China into the international community and its norms of behavior. The stronger they become, the more China will act like a normal nation. Do not ignore the irritants of human rights and trade violations, but do not let them dominate the relationship, as they have in recent years. Above all, be wary: China is very big and for the time being very unstable. It will require a good deal more attention than we have been paying so far. China is going to be strong; there's no way of avoiding that. Better a strong friend than a strong foe.