A few days ago, at a convention of newspaper editors in Washington, I attended a remarkable reunion.
It was a reunion of editors who had made the first pilgrimage to China some 25 years ago, after it opened up to the West, and a number of Chinese officials who had been our interpreters on that month-long visit.
One of the Chinese present was Yao Wei, who had been my interpreter. Yao Wei spoke fluent English. He was incredibly bright and well informed. He could articulate the Communist line with ease. Mao Tse-tung was still alive, as was Chou En-Lai, with whom we had a fascinating four-hour midnight dialogue. China was gripped by Communist fervor. We assumed that anybody like Yao Wei, trusted by the regime to mix with visiting American journalists, was a party stalwart.
Fast forward to 2001. Yao Wei and his family, now as American as they come, are settled in the United States. They live in Texas, where Yao Wei is CEO of a helicopter-manufacturing company, concerned with profit margins and productivity.
In the same time that Yao Wei has been transformed from a Communist apparatchik to an American businessman, millions who still live in China have had their lives transformed, too. When I first went to China, workers longed for a sewing machine, a radio, a bicycle. Today they want a color TV and a car, and dream of vacations in Hawaii.
If history is any road map, this revolution of rising expectations will also lead China inevitably to greater political freedom. But that time has not yet come. China is not free. It treats many of its own people with disregard for basic human rights. It persecutes the Falun Gong religious movement. It threatens Taiwan. It held an American aircrew in an irascible standoff with Washington. While the governing Chinese regime has abandoned communism as an economic blueprint, it retains it as a means to maintain political power.
This is the challenge that confronts the Bush administration as it strives to maintain "engagement" and trade ties with a country that defies the norms of international behavior and discourse. A country, moreover, whose government is a coalition of diverse factions with different agendas on the eve of a succession struggle. Not the least perplexing for those charged with managing the Bush administration's relations with China is the role of the hard-line Chinese military versus the role of the pragmatic politicians.
That attempt at engagement begins anew today, when Americans and Chinese try to bring closure to the crisis caused by the downing of an American reconnaissance plane. Dozens of countries - including China - routinely engage in such intelligence-gathering in international waters and air space. For the United States, it is done more cheaply and efficiently by planes eavesdropping from a distance of 200 miles than by satellites from 20,000 miles away. There is nothing unethical or illegal about such intelligence-gathering, pursued as it already is against the US by a string of other countries. The US has said it will resist Chinese pressure to abandon such flights, and it should.
Next comes the critical question of selling American weapons systems to Taiwan, including Aegis-equipped destroyers, antimissile batteries, and submarines. China requires the ultimate reintegration of Taiwan with China, and says it wants that to be peaceful.
But irritated by independence talk in Taiwan, the Chinese have been beefing up their missile bases and military units within striking distance of Taiwan. Under these circumstances, Taiwan has a legitimate reason for buying upgraded defensive weaponry from the US.
Several other issues loom. The US should favor trade with China and the facilitation thereof. That will help draw China into the 21st century. The United States should not block China's bid to host the Olympic Games in 2008. If China wins that campaign, it might be short-term protection for Taiwan. China would surely understand that any military action against Taiwan before 2008 would torpedo their hosting of the Olympics.
President Bush should proceed with plans to hold a summit meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin later this year. The outcome of that summit, however, needs to be carefully orchestrated in advance. The complexity of the US-China relationship is such that both leaders must come away with tangible results. This is no occasion for an aimless exchange of chit-chat, or far worse, a face-losing affront.
Such is the state of play with China, for what promises to be the most challenging foreign-policy problem of President Bush's first term.
John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and currently editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor