WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Colin Powell was the latest to discover that when China's Communist government promises to allow a visiting American official to speak directly to the Chinese people, it is déjà vu all over again, as the editors, censors, and official programmers come out of the woodwork.
The recent Powell visit was intended to warm up Sino-US relations after the EP-3E incident and Beijing's detentions of US-based scholars. According to the State Department, government media officials explicitly agreed that the secretary could address the Chinese public freely to express America's goodwill and our commitment to a healthy relationship with China.
Mr. Powell also used the occasion to make some mild references to human rights and to explain the American position on Taiwan. But those references were edited out of the version actually broadcast. As if by ritual, the State Department has protested and Beijing has denied that it ever committed to not cutting content.
For those who deal with or study China, the pattern is familiar.
In "About Face," his masterful history of modern Sino-US relations, James Mann describes President Reagan's multiple efforts to gain unfiltered access to the Chinese population during his visit in April 1984. Mr. Reagan's speech at the Great Hall of the People was supposed to be televised "live and unexpurgated." But Chinese officials delayed transmission and deleted passages that praised democracy and free enterprise. Particularly objectionable to them was a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: "No man is good enough to govern another man without the other's consent."
Again, in an interview with Chinese Central Television, Reagan spoke of human rights and freedom of expression and religion. Again, the censors excised the offensive language. Just before leaving China, he made one last effort and spoke of personal faith and freedom at a meeting with students at Fudan University. This time the remarks were shown live, but were not translated into Chinese, greatly limiting the potential audience.
Beijing played similar cat-and-mouse games with media coverage of President Clinton's visit to China in May 1998. Despite official promises of a direct communication line to the Chinese people, the impact of any pro-human rights remarks was strictly limited by lack of advance notice of his appearances (including a live joint press conference with President Jiang Zemin), rebroadcasts of edited versions only, and selective press reporting.
Americans may see television coverage as a minor issue on the larger China-US agenda. But controlling what the Chinese people see and hear is central to the Communist government's monopoly on power, and it jealously guards access from any competing sources, especially on the subject of human rights and democratic freedoms. Chinese leaders are well aware of the impact of Reagan's speeches to Russian students just before the fall of the Soviet Union. They vow not to follow the Soviet and East European experience by opening China politically. Jiang said at the Communist Party's 80th anniversary celebration last month that China would never be so foolish as to repeat Slobodan Milosevic's mistake of allowing free elections and would "resolutely resist the influence of the Western multiparty system."
The question, then, is whether Washington should continue the Kabuki dance of pretending to insist on unlimited access to the Chinese public, while Beijing pretends to grant it. Making these half-hearted efforts is by no means cost-free for the US side.
First, China always extracts something in return for its "concession" in allowing any television access at all. Second, censored anodyne messages from high US officials serve the Chinese government's ends, not ours, by seeming to put an American stamp of approval on its practices and legitimizing its current attack on the people's rights. (During the Powell visit, the government was openly persecuting Falun Gong members.)
Third, it undermines US credibility and reinforces Communist perceptions that American negotiating demands are not to be taken seriously, that we will cave as easily on proliferation and trade and Taiwan as we do on our core-value issues of human rights and democratic reform.
Responding to a firmer State Department position than it is accustomed to, Beijing has now put the secretary's remarks on the Internet. While that is a positive step, it represents a minuscule part of the Chinese audience that was promised. If the government will not honor its commitment to broadcast the speech intact, the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia should be asked to do the job. If the Chinese government jams their transmissions, as it regularly does, Washington should find an appropriate price to impose for China's reneging on its original pledge.
That same no-nonsense approach to the long list of Beijing's other broken promises may finally get the relationship on a more solid foundation. If the West is expected to treat China like a normal country, it should be required to act like one.
Firmness and clarity will go further than polite diplomatese in achieving that end and preparing for President Bush's meeting with Jiang in October. It will then be his turn to look China's leaders - and the Chinese people - in the eye and give them a dose of truth about American interests and American values.
Joseph A. Bosco teaches in the Asian-studies program at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.