China's Controversial Gifts: For What?

Behind this week's Senate hearings are questions about Chinese intentions

The Senate hearings resuming today concerning alleged Chinese influence peddling are mainly about money and American politics. But the investigation also raises two important questions: What does China want, and is it likely to get it?

Among its top priorities, say experts, China would like to weaken US political support for and curb arms sales to Taiwan, the nationalist stronghold. Reunification of the island with the mainland is Beijing's principal goal now that Hong Kong has been returned by the British.

But Beijing's communist rulers have other significant reasons for seeking changes in US policy toward China.

Anxious to accelerate its modernization drive, China seeks unfettered access to US-made technologies, expertise, and markets. It also wants the respect it believes is due a world power. That includes greater regard for its position on regional and international issues and less criticism of its human rights record, its sales of military-related technologies to Iran and Pakistan, and the $40 billion trade surplus with the US.

But there is little chance that China could acquire sufficient influence - legally or illicitly - to fulfill its agenda, experts here say.

Until Beijing observes norms of international conduct and implements democratic reforms, they explain, it has scant hope of winning more support from American politicians, activists, and the public to achieve its goals.

"China's lobbying can help US-China relations if done properly, but without change at home, it is never going to accomplish what the Chinese would most want," says Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, a China expert at Georgetown University here.

Allegations that China tried to funnel illegal contributions to last year's election campaigns, in particular to that of President Clinton, are the focus of campaign-finance hearings begun last week by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

In the absence of any proof, so far, of wrongdoing, attention remains riveted on the veracity of charges by the panel's chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, that China has sought to purchase influence and co-opt rising political leaders. A major goal, Senator Thompson asserted, was a change in US support for Taiwan, regarded by China as a renegade province since it became the refuge of nationalists defeated in a civil war by communist forces in 1949.

But that's not the way committee Democrats see things. They disagree that classified US intelligence cited by Thompson and other Republicans support their assertions that Chinese funds were illegally funneled into the Clinton campaign.

"We certainly don't have enough to conclude that," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

Whatever the truth of the allegations, some experts say China has stepped up legitimate efforts to curry favor on Capitol Hill, where perceptions are growing that Clinton has been soft on Beijing's misconduct in deference to US commercial interests. These efforts include the opening of a congressional liaison office at the Chinese Embassy and an increased presence on the Hill by Chinese diplomats.

Experts see such steps as a belated attempt by China to counteract the successful lobbying by Taiwan to maintain support following the opening of Sino-US relations in 1979.

"I would think it's an attempt ... to lessen the strength of the Taiwanese lobby in this country," says Penelope Hardland-Thunberg, a former US trade official and China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

But if China decided that its effort also required it to illegally buy influence, it misunderstood the American political system, experts say.

Beijing's emergence as a military and political power and the US desire to maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region guaranteed that China would automatically command enormous influence. Furthermore, with global trade competition rising, it found important allies in the Clinton administration and American companies anxious to invest in one of the world's fastest growing markets.

It was this powerful alliance that secured congressional renewal in June of China's trade privileges with the US. China hopes that the same combination will help it win membership in the World Trade Organization.

But China's refusal to adopt democratic reforms, its alleged diversion of US-made technologies to military uses and missile sales to Iran, its repression of civil and religious freedoms, and intimidation of its smaller neighbors make further improvements in relations unlikely.

That fact was illustrated by Clinton's dispatch last year of two US aircraft carrier battle groups off Taiwan in response to provocative Chinese war games, and US warnings to Beijing not to renege on its pledge to maintain Hong Kong's political and economic freedoms.

If better ties are truly what Beijing seeks, says Professor Tucker, it should take its cue from Taiwan, whose support in the US has been bolstered by its implementation of democratic reforms.

"What [mainland Chinese] don't understand about the success that Taiwan has had with lobbying is that Taiwan's lobbying became much more successful as Taiwan's political system changed," she says.

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