The Case Against China Sanctions

By , Nan Shen was born in Beijing. Her parents were accused of counterrevolutionary activities in the '50s and '60s, and her grandparents were executed. At a young age, Ms. Shen was banished to the countryside for seven years during the Cultural Revolution. In 1981 she came to the US to study economics, and returned to China in 1987 and 1988 to establish business relations with Chinese officials. She resides in Monterey Park, Calif.

PRESIDENT BUSH has been widely criticized for his reaction to the Tienanmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protesters. The military sanctions and other measures imposed by the United States against the Beijing regime have been termed ineffective. Emotions have been running high. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was heckled off a New York City platform by a crowd of mostly Chinese and Chinese-Americans for supporting the administration's moderate response. Last week the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill calling for stiffer economic sanctions than those favored by the White House.

The plea for a tougher stance against the Beijing government is an emotional response to a complex situation. It reveals little understanding of cultural and political perspectives in China and of the needs of the Chinese people and the pro-democracy activists. The aging hardliners in Beijing have few doubts that the genie of democracy can be stuffed back into the bottle. For they have done so many times before.

The Beijing hardliners hold little concern for Western pressure or sanctions. For the leadership, political problems are an internal Chinese matter. Sanctions and limiting diplomatic relations with the rest of the world would only reinforce China's intention to treat the matter as an internal affair. China would be pulled even further backward toward the dark days prior to economic reforms.

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Foreign economic sanctions are intended to create pressure for reform by imposing hardship on the leadership and reinforcing political dissension from the bottom. Trade sanctions against China would not punish the leadership. They are well insulated from personal and political hardship. In fact, that insulation and corruption was one of the foundation stones of the protest movement. Ordinary Chinese would be the losers. And in the wake of the recent massacre, who would propose today that the Beijing hardliners are concerned about domestic political pressure?

Chinese attitudes toward hardships imposed by foreigners also must be considered. A virulent xenophobia against foreigners has always lurked just beneath the surface of Chinese society. It would be a small matter for the Chinese government to turn American trade and political sanctions into a formidable weapon against American interests.

For example, in early 1988 China faced critical shortages of paper. The publication of periodicals and books was suspended. Each household in Beijing was rationed to one roll of toilet paper a week.

At that time, I had the opportunity to negotiate purchase of foreign paper pulp desperately needed in China. Yet when the Chinese Light Industrial Ministry learned that the foreign seller was proposing to provide paper at world market prices, a high official said to me, ``We do not need their paper.'' He added: ``We will never lower our heads to accept their price. And if the foreigners do not sell at a lower price, we will not suffer. We have shown we can survive without their products.''

The official predicted that in the future the same foreign merchants would return to China on their hands and knees, begging China to buy their products. But China would have shown they did not need a foreigner's help or products. Foreigners would regret trying to punish China with unreasonable prices. Until that day came, China was proud to maintain her honor and do without.

The clear message was that the rest of the world needed China much more than China needed the world. Foreigners would eventually be punished for not maintaining friendship with China.

That attitude is not unique in China. Suffering at the hands of a foreign imperialist has become part of the culture. The Chinese are patient. They will wait for their retribution against foreign influence. The Chinese government knows well how to use those attitudes for its own interests.

In order to ensure their power and privilege, China's hardliners will pay any cost. What is not well understood is that the Chinese people are also willing to share the suffering necessitated by Western economic sanctions without lowering their heads. Rather than changing Beijing's attitude, the effect of sanctions would be to unify the Chinese people around their leaders in resistance to humiliation by the West.

Many times in the past, the Beijing leadership has demonstrated their ability to create any attitude they seek to impose among the Chinese people. It would be a small matter for the hardliners to divert China's attention away from the democracy movement and toward defending China against a common foreign enemy. Foreign economic and political sanctions would play directly into the hands of those who wish to stifle political dissent in China.

President Bush's cautious approach is the best for China and the Chinese people. From the US position, America must not endanger the Sino-American relationships that have been developed over more than 15 years. From China's point of view, there would be nothing more terrible for 1 billion Chinese people than to be abandoned by their much admired American friends.

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