China's great balancing act as it gains world prominence

Two items of unconnected resistance on the international scene went virtually unnoticed last week, but they were of considerable significance for China's communist regime.

In Hong Kong, the former British colony now part of China, thousands mounted a huge rally for full democracy, rather than the limited political changes Beijing is permitting. Organizers claimed 250,000 people turned out, but the police put the crowd at 63,000. The legislature is due to vote on a package of limited political changes Dec. 21, but prodemocracy forces are campaigning for one-person, one-vote elections for the chief executive and all members of the legislature.

In an unrelated incident, security forces opened fire on residents of Dongzhou, a village in southern China, reportedly killing as many as 20. Officials have admitted far fewer deaths. Demonstrators had been protesting plans for a new coal-fired power plant to be built on local land for which they claimed they had been inadequately compensated. They also claimed it would produce harmful pollution. Although the cause of this ferment was economic and not political, it was a rare demonstration of opposition to authority and apparently drew a swift reaction from security forces. Interestingly, the village is in an area close to Hong Kong and, like other coastal areas in this region, has access to Hong Kong television, which is substantially freer than mainland television which is under the Beijing government's thumb.

All this is anathema to the Beijing regime, which uses communism and its structure to maintain a firm political grip on territory under its control, while at the same time promoting the capitalist methods that have fueled China's remarkable economic growth. Outbursts of opposition in Hong Kong and southern China raise for Beijing the specter of copycat defiance elsewhere in China and particularly Taiwan, which is politically and economically a different entity, but which China claims as its own territory, although the island is not under its control.

How this balancing act plays out is a matter of immense importance to the United States, whose relationship with China is currently one of its most important bilateral concerns.

The White House is observing an energetic Chinese trade and diplomatic offensive around the world as Beijing seeks to compete for oil and other resources in Africa and Latin America in order to keep its economy expanding. China is also boosting its military capability. Although this in no way matches the awesome military capacity of the US, it poses a potential threat to neighbors in areas of Asia and the Pacific where the US has major interests. An example of China's reception as a major player in Asia is the fact that it will be prominent in the first East Asian Summit scheduled to meet in Kuala Lumpur Wednesday. Attendees will be the ASEAN member states, plus China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, but not the US.

Both President Bush and China's President Hu Jintao seem anxious to keep their countries in an amicable relationship even as they compete for influence and resources in various regions of the world. The trade interests alone of the two countries are immense.

Thus China did not explode as it might have in earlier times when, on the eve of his visit to China last month, Mr. Bush lauded democracy in Taiwan.

For his part, Bush welcomes China as a key participant in negotiations with North Korea to curb that country's nuclear program. China could be helpful in a similar effort to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The US wants concessions from China on its exchange rate policy and a big imbalance in Chinese imports into the US versus US exports to China. Mr. Hu made helpful noises during Bush's visit but no commitments.

The last thing that either leader wants is a confrontation over Taiwan, perhaps precipitated by democracy demands in Hong Kong. Taiwan's status is unique and delicate. China claims it but so far desists from any military move to occupy it. The US recognizes China but has a special relationship with democratic Taiwan, which would oblige it to come to Taiwan's rescue if China should launch a military move to occupy it. That is why the US dampens independence talk in Taiwan when some politicians start it.

It is a peculiar position for the US, discouraging independence for a democratic country living in the shadow of a communist giant. But such a posture maintains stability in the region. That also requires keeping a careful watch on any signs of internal challenge to Beijing's grip.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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