A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China 
by Patrick Tyler.
PublicAffairs, 512 pp., £11.99, September 2000, 1 58648 005 7
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Henry Luce​ – who coined the catchphrase about ‘the American Century’ – once said that the crucial event of that century would be the Christianisation of China. He meant the Protestant evangelisation of China; it would have been no less absurd to propose the conversion of the Chinese to Judaism, but there was a time when millions of American homes gave little subscriptions for the cause, and when the prestige of the American missionary stood high. When authors like Pearl Buck wrote about ‘the good earth’ in the 1930s, they sold vast shoals of books. As late as the late 1950s, Harold Isaacs could publish a highly influential volume entitled Scratches on Our Minds, showing the immense extent of the cultural impression made by the Sino-American encounter. If this relationship never rose to the level of the Anglo-Indian kinship it was because it went on for less time, was based even more on trade and conversion, and was initiated at almost precisely the moment when the Chinese people had made up their minds to be rid of foreign rule. Since that consummation was accomplished quite swiftly, and under Communist leadership, the resulting breach was much wider and deeper than it might have been; China reverted to resembling, in the American mind, something far worse than partes infidelium. The John Birch Society, an important orchestrator of American paranoia in the 1950s, was named for an American missionary who had supposedly been martyred by the Reds.

Indeed, the Cold War and McCarthyite atmosphere in the United States was attributable much more to events on Mao’s periphery than on Stalin’s; the deadly question ‘Who Lost China?’ was the weapon employed to suggest a stab in the back and thereby to impale the foreign policy liberal internationalists. The cause of Indian independence always had devoted British friends of many stripes; the Americans who ‘knew’ China and strove for a better understanding of the Revolution were mainly Communist sympathisers like Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong and Owen Lattimore. After the gruesomeness of the war in Korea, their expertise was at a discount and the State Department was purged of the sort of people who might, if they had stuck around, have helped avert the inane policies that eventuated in the Vietnam War. (It still takes an effort of the conscious memory to recall that men like Dean Rusk presented that war as a struggle against the expansion of ‘Red China’.) The Chinese mainland receded over the horizon, remembered as a lost opportunity for Christianity and also with the yearning nostalgia that goes with a huge abandoned market. For decades, when American officials and politicians referred to ‘China’, they affected to mean only the island of Formosa/ Taiwan; rather as if the Germans had decided to recognise the Dame of Sark as the sole legitimate representative of the British people.

Now, the polarities are abruptly reversed. An easy way of attracting official scorn in Washington is to express any scepticism about the speed and scope of trade with, and general furriness towards, the China of Jiang Zemin. The Clinton campaign of 1992 made quite a point of the Bush regime’s failure to respond to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989; there was much brave talk of ‘the butchers of Beijing’ and the Stalinist gerontocracy, and of the need to employ economic ‘leverage’ for human rights. In those days, the annual certification of China for ‘Most Favored Nation’ trade status was ‘linked’ to showing progress on the rights front; the routine had something of ritual hypocrisy about it but it did at least provide a measuring rod. The special contribution of the Clinton Administration has been to achieve what Washington calls ‘delinking’; a complete separation between the sales of weaponry and high-tech goods and any consideration of human rights. The story of the cave-in is instructive.

In March 1994, Warren Christopher paid his first visit to China as Secretary of State. A few days before his arrival, the authorities arrested Wei Jingsheng, the highest-ranking Party member to have become a dissident, and one of the founders of the ‘Democracy Wall’ movement. No sooner had Christopher got off his plane than he was confronted by Li Peng, who had been the hardest of the hardliners in urging a bloody end to the Tiananmen protests:

Li Peng unleashed a torrent of invective against American interference in China’s internal politics that was so ferocious that the Americans wondered whether they ought to get up and walk out of the room … Li violently jabbed and slashed with his hands; he pounded the arm of his chair. China, he said, was fully prepared for Clinton to revoke Beijing’s most-favored-nation privileges. America would suffer, too … And, personalising his attack, Li said that it had taken men like Nixon and Kissinger to have the vision to open relations with China, but Clinton and Christopher had no such vision. They would be blamed for ‘losing’ China.

One of the great merits of Patrick Tyler’s history of this relationship is its down-to-earthness. He footnotes Li Peng’s diatribe thus:

It is likely that Li Peng invoked the ‘losing China’ argument because he understood how powerful it was in domestic American politics. After so many years of dealing with American officeholders, and then having them return to China after their terms of office as highly-paid consultants, Chinese leaders had learned many of the American pressure points.

Indeed they had. (General Alexander Haig and Henry Kissinger are only two of Christopher’s Foggy Bottom predecessors to have franchised their expertise in this way.) Warren Christopher returned to Washington to find that Clinton was determined to dump the ‘linkage’ policy on which he’d been elected, and to find a way of blaming it on others. It was decided to send Michael Armacost, an old China hand in both Democratic and Republican Administrations, to conduct the final obsequies. Armacost, indeed, refused to take on the mission ‘unless there was a consensus that the human rights linkage was going to be jettisoned. He was soon satisfied.’ However, when Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser, took Armacost for a meeting with Clinton, to discuss some last-minute face-saving concessions from the Chinese side, he found himself in an Oval Office convulsed with panic. Clinton barely shook his hand before rejoining an anxious huddle of aides, and Armacost had to find out from the next day’s newspapers that Paula Jones had just filed her lawsuit against the boss. But everything in Beijing went smoothly and, by the time of the 1996 elections, American aerospace and technology companies were trading freely with China. Congress is still investigating the connection between this policy and a freshet of back-door donations from such companies, and their Chinese middlemen, to Clinton’s re-election campaign. Some of that money also found its way into his legal defence fund, which was set up to fight off Miss Jones but which soon needed to be deployed against several more complaining women. Wei Jinsheng was later released and now lives in the United States; when I had dinner with him two years ago he said that it was hard to lobby against the Beijing dictatorship in Washington, because Washington’s China policy was determined in Beijing. That was dialectical, in its way.

Clinton, as Tyler points out, had been to Taiwan many times as Governor of Arkansas and had learned the essential point that the business of Chinese relations is business. What the Taiwanese taught him he applied – to their ire – to relations with the mainland. His Southern Baptist predecessor Jimmy Carter had been an officer on a diesel-powered US submarine in 1949, and had watched as one by one the Chinese ports turned Red. His missionary uncle had once striven to Christianise this littoral; young Jimmy was hastily buying souvenirs in Qingdao as the campfires of Mao’s victorious People’s Liberation Army became visible on the hills above. Thirty years later, having taken office after a chapter of Nixonian crimes, he completed what Nixon and Kissinger had begun, and in 1979 broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognised the People’s Republic of China. At the time, he was denounced for softness on Communism by Ronald Reagan, who arranged a campaign photo-op for himself in Taiwan, and by George Bush, who impugned Carter’s Christian credentials in a Washington Post op-ed piece. This period of rhetoric already seems prehistoric. (Henry Kissinger threatened to criticise the move as well, but was contacted by Zbigniew Brzezinski and told that Carter might reveal what he knew of some past secret dealings. ‘The threat,’ Tyler drily minutes, ‘worked.’ Ten years later, Kissinger was attacking anybody who dared criticise the Chinese leadership for the Tiananmen Square massacre, and had become the chief Sinologist for Atlantic Richfield and the Chase Manhattan Bank.) The American-Chinese special relationship is now a done deal, free at last from any danger of partisan recrimination, or accusation of treason.

So now the only opponents of the new and hyper-profitable rapprochement are a few ex-friends of Taiwan on the Right, and a few human-rights types on the Left, and a segment of the American labour movement that doesn’t like being undercut by cheap products made in Chinese sweatshops or Chinese prisons, which are often the same thing. In Beijing last winter, I was astonished at the skyline. Chinese culture these days has very little influence on American culture; the ‘scratches on the mind’ are all in the other direction. McDonald’s, Gap, American Express – the brightly-lit logos stretch all the way through town. The bars and discos and hotels could be in Milwaukee or Des Moines. You have to go almost as far as Tiananmen itself to see a red flag or a portrait of Mao; mind you, the nerve-centre of the Communist Party is off-centre in a forbidden city of its own. Invited to speak to a group of students at the University I asked to be shown the memorial to Edgar Snow that sits in a garden by the lake and was met by some odd looks; this could have been because Snow is démodé or it could have been because his widow made a fuss about all the dead students in 1989, and has since been refused admission to the campus.

The ‘market Stalinist’ system operates on a kind of double-entry bookkeeping, with a clear calculation of profit and loss on the part of the leadership. The boom in investment is good: the growth of corruption is bad. The wave of prosperity is fine: the growth of inequality and unemployment is a cause for concern, as are those who write about it. (The critical work of He Qinglian, available to you as ‘China’s Listing Social Structure’ in the September 2000 New Left Review, was better known in samizdat form than I would have imagined.) Recent events in Serbia had been much downplayed in the official press; the election defeat of Milosevic almost unmentioned. On the other hand, the arrival of Marko Milosevic, bandit son of the fallen chief, at Beijing airport went unmentioned also. He was put back on the plane to Moscow without a trace of the sentimentality that would have greeted him even a month before. The students told me that they had learned of this only through the Internet. It would have taken a longer Web-search to discover the discussions of the Central Committee about the fall of Milosevic senior: Jiang Zemin is reputed to have said that this collapse of an ally and client required great vigilance because ‘a single spark can start a prairie fire.’ Whether he was being ironic in his use of Lenin’s old slogan is more than I know (Iskra, the title of the old Bolshevik sheet, means ‘Spark’) but if so, the irony was at his own expense. The evident panic with which the Party views the emergence of the Falun Gong cult, in itself a negligible and shallow and sinister thing, is suggestive. It reminds the leadership that ideological vacuums need to be filled, and that past episodes of superstition and cultism – the Taiping and Boxer risings are never far from mind – often betokened a fin de régime.

Having just been back over the record again, first in the company of Henry Kissinger and second in the much more congenial and informative company of Mr Tyler, I cannot rid myself of the feeling that there is something insincere and inauthentic in the whole relationship. The Nixonites wanted to quarantine China for three decades; they then wanted the credit for ‘opening the door’ that they had irrationally kept so tightly nailed shut. Their secret diplomacy is always praised; I have never been able to understand why. What could be more natural than a public approach to Beijing, and a frank statement that the refusal of either country to notice the other was absurd? Alas, the Nixon-Kissinger approach was conditioned by the exigencies of the Vietnam War – yet another instance in which they could not afford to be honest, let alone transparent, about their own objectives. And this is to say nothing about the ‘collateral’ cost of the secret initiative, which was the collusion of the US Government in the slaughter of millions of Bengalis. Of course we are never quite invited to agree in so many words that the saving of Nixon’s face, by way of a ‘back-channel’ opened by the Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan, was worth the massacre of a few million Bangladeshis. But that is what it actually took. (A nasty but less sanguinary channel, by way of Ceausescu’s Romania, already existed but offered less in terms of regional realpolitik.)

Ever since this unpromising beginning, the diplomacy, or horse-trading, has been conducted between elites with a good deal to hide and a great deal to gain. It has no genuine tincture of friendship; you should have seen the hysterical and reflexive anti-Americanism of the Chinese press after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. And you should have seen the expression on the faces of the American team – Carter, Mondale, Vance, Brzezinski – when they touched on the issue of free emigration and were coolly told by Deng Xiaoping: ‘Fine. How many do you want? Ten million?’ That was the end of that. This is a very frigid and two-faced alliance. Its warmest point was probably touched when China invaded Vietnam in order to convince Washington of its essential good faith. Another point, somewhat less warm, is being reached in this third month of the Bush Administration. A summit is being dangled in Beijing, more or less on condition that Washington does not sell the Aegis defence system to Taiwan. Factions are forming, as they already have around every other element of this Government’s evidently rudderless foreign policy. But it comes down to this. Having helped the mainland acquire the means of high-tech warfare, in full knowledge of its ultimate designs on Taiwan, how can the US refuse to sell Taiwan the means of ‘deterrence’? There is money behind this, too, you may be sure. But it is the long-term consequence of a short-term policy of sowing dragon’s teeth. The Dame of Sark was never such a turbulent proxy.

In the​ first week of March, China’s Finance Minister, Xiang Huaicheng, sent the new Bush Administration into a tailspin by announcing an increase in military spending of 17.7 per cent. A Beijing defence white paper published last October had already identified the United States as the main enemy because of its ‘new gunboat policy and neo-economic colonialism’. The near-unbelievable decision to press ahead with an American ‘missile shield’ has only reinforced this mentality. So it is an arms race at one end and a Starbucks deal at the other. The whole contradiction is neatly caught in a recent decision by the US Army to issue black berets to all its forces, and to buy them in bulk from Chinese sweatshops. Some conservative veterans mutter the slogan taught them by the John Birch Society in the bad old days: Lenin’s alleged observation that the capitalist will even sell you the rope with which you’ll hang him. But the joke is on them. A few years from now, China may not be Communist even in name. It may be just nationalist and militarist and xenophobic. It will, however, still possess the sinews that were sold to it by a succession of wheeler-dealers in the revolving door of American power. Tyler’s title is taken from the stupefying remark made by Richard Nixon when he was escorted to the Wall on his first trip. ‘This truly is a great wall!’

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