First, sort. Then act. House Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Lott ought to start the coming days sorting out America's national interest in China from the political hay to be made from attempts by some Chinese military-industrial-party figures to influence the Clinton administration.
The two matters are not totally unrelated. But they are substantially separate. They ought to be so treated.
One result would be to drop demands that President Clinton cancel or curtail his late-June China trip. Mr. Clinton may deserve criticism for his 180-degree swing on China policy since he recklessly criticized President Bush in 1992. But the American people don't deserve a silly season of damage to US relations with Beijing.
America's interest, indeed world interest, lies in encouraging and speeding trends that started with the Deng Xiaoping reforms of 1979 and markedly accelerated in the past year. Among those trends:
1. Recognition of the value of free markets and free job movement.
2. A start on privatization of tens of thousands of dreadfully inefficient, initiative-corrupting state industries.
3. Introduction of democratic elections at the village/town level.
4. Gradual realization that the world's most populous nation must improve its environmental record. No one gains if China's billion-plus potential drivers and users of appliances greenhouse themselves and the rest of us to global climate dangers.
5. Increasing cooperation on international economic and peace issues. That includes helping to stabilize troubled Asian economies, gradually adhering to norms of commercial law, and, also gradually, aiding US efforts to halt nuclear proliferation.
Is the record clean? Certainly not. For instance, Beijing has not so far responded to the Dalai Lama's reasonable position that negotiation over easing conditions in Tibet need not mean independence. Nor has China gone much beyond tokenism in releasing political dissidents and allowing political debate.
Obviously, the world would not benefit from prolonged turbulence in this state that wields so much weight over the planet's economic, military, and environmental future. In that regard, Washington should take a cue from Chinese dissident leaders who courageously advise the US to stay engaged with Beijing as it presses for more reform. That's reason enough not to delay Clinton's trip. And reason not to vote against renewal of China's normal trade status.
Does this mean forgoing investigation (and campaign criticism) of the Clinton team for its China-related fund-raising? No. But those who pursue that tack should muzzle the "treason" talk. That risks a repeat of the GOP's "who lost China" demagoguery of the 1950s as well as a repeat of Clinton-Gore anti-Bush demagoguery in 1992. Americans won't buy yet another round of such bombast.
Americans don't deserve a repeat of 1950s GOP or 1992 Clinton-Gore China demagoguery.