Not A New Cold War

WE CANNOT REPLAY THE COLD WAR WITH CHINA. The cold war pitted two systems against each other. This contest of political ideas and economies suited the American psyche, which prefers to see countries as good or evil. The Soviets accommodated our moralism by barricading themselves from the world economy and democratic societies. The Chinese are not isolating themselves--just the opposite--or promoting an alternate global ""system.'' China may or may not ultimately threaten American interests. But it cannot be treated as a separate force that, somehow, will be ""contained.''

I mention all this because we seem to be working up a good lather over China. Its latest offense is the alleged involvement of its U.S. embassy with illegal campaign contributions. Whatever the facts, we ought to resist casting China as the newest Evil Empire. A recent trip to Hong Kong strengthens that conviction. After talking to people there, it's harder to view China only through a cold-war prism: as a monolithic power that oppresses its people and is our foe. This image conveys some truths about China, but not the only truths.

The central reality about China today is its campaign to modernize economically--and all the political consequences that flow from that. Some commentators compare this to Germany's rise in the late 19th century. Like Germany, China has ""a dynamic economy, increasing military strength and a rising ambition . . . to play a [greater] role on the world stage,'' writes historian Robert Kagan of American University in the Weekly Standard. The less forbidding possibility is that economic modernization will promote political liberalization. A commercialized China will be less authoritarian and more peaceful.

The trouble is that we don't know which picture best fits what China will become. Neither do the Chinese. Deng Xiaoping's decision in 1978 to pursue economic growth by abandoning strict collectivism unleashed social changes that still reverberate. Based on my Hong Kong interviews, here's how I assess matters.

First, China's economy could expand rapidly for some years. Since 1980, annual growth has averaged about 9.5 percent. Other poor countries have grown strongly for long stretches; Japan averaged 10 percent a year from 1950 to 1970. High growth stems from adopting modern production processes and eliminating obvious inefficiencies. China can do both. A high savings rate (40 percent of national income) means it can afford heavy investment. And a large state sector implies ample waste. State-owned companies account for 42 percent of industrial output.

Second, economic growth has enhanced political freedom. Almost everyone I talked with said so. It's easier to travel. Policy disagreements are more open. Individual leaders can be criticized. All this stops short of tolerating open challenges to the communist political monopoly, but the monopoly is looser. ""Economic development has already created a human-rights revolution,'' says economist William Overholt of Bankers Trust. ""People who aren't hungry . . . are more assertive.'' Economist Shan Li of Goldman, Sachs, who grew up in Sichuan province, says that ""twenty years ago, you couldn't study abroad.'' But he could, receiving his Ph.D. from MIT in 1993.

Third, our view of China is warped. ""People in America and around the world don't know what's going on,'' claims Ronnie C. Chan, a real-estate developer who heads the Hong Kong chapter of the Asia Society. ""Most journalists don't have the cultural or language background to understand China. And they freeze history.'' Though Chan exaggerates (the China reporters I know speak some Chinese), he has a point. Press coverage is selective. It focuses on human-rights abuses, corruption and political intrigue. Broader changes are underreported.

None of this makes China a benign place sliding toward suburban bliss. Tiananmen Square did happen; the repression of Tibet is real; dissidents are persecuted. China remains desperately poor and culturally distinct. On a trip to Guangzhou (formerly Canton), I visited the market. What you see are cages of rabbits, pigeons, muskrats, turkeys, rats, cats, wild pigs and chickens. All were for sale, slaughter and consumption. ""This is different from your supermarket,'' says the guide. Well, yes. China straddles its poor past and its (imagined) prosperous future. But political instability, economic mistakes or pervasive corruption could deny that future.

Still, it's no longer Mao's China. Today's human-rights abuses pale before the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution. Economic growth has created a more open society with more power centers and interest groups. China's neighbors are trading with it eagerly, even if they're wary of its growing presence. They would probably resist any effort to quarantine China. While I was in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China agreed to resume direct shipping services (an alternative to moving freight through Hong Kong).

The paradox is that the very process that might make China less oppressive could also make it more menacing and less stable. When China was poor and introverted, it posed little threat to anyone but its own people. Now its expanding economy gives it more weight and the means to strengthen its military. Growth has also fanned popular expectations that, if not met, could foster a political backlash. One way to deflect any anger would be to foment nationalism--and what better target than the United States? The more we vilify China, the more we encourage that.

Our conflicts with China range from trade and nuclear nonproliferation to human rights and the environment. We ought to defend our interests and values, while remaining strong militarily. But we ought to minimize our self-righteous rhetoric. The Clinton administration (after early bombast) seems to have adopted this approach. Congress and the public are slower. The cold war's moralism remains a false reference point. Although breast-beating may be satisfying, it is not a policy. Treating China as an implacable adversary could become self-fulfilling.