- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2001

It's an ill wind that blows nobody good, even a cold wind out of the China Sea.

Illusions die hard, especially in the minds of our corporate patriots for whom selling is everything, but the illusion that barbarians can be reformed with the transfusion of trade lies severely wounded this morning.

The notion that the men in charge in China would never be so stupid as to do something stupid suddenly sounds pretty stupid. But far better to destroy such illusions on Hainan Island at no cost of American lives than at the cost later of a Beijing missile banging into downtown Taipei at rush hour, or with a torpedo lobbed into the belly of an American destroyer on patrol in the Taiwan Straits.

The Chinese generals who gambled that Americans are too proud (and flaccid) to recognize insult and injury may be rattled in that conviction this morning. The aging Chinese politicians and diplomats could see what the generals could not, that American patience was beginning to wear thin even as the White House continued to play word games, not only with the Chinese but with Americans, insisting that the hostages were not "hostages," that the prisoners were not "prisoners," that captives were not in "captivity."

Arthur Waldron of the American Enterprise Institute, writing in London's Daily Telegraph, likens the popping of the carefully contrived official pretense over American relations with China that they're happy relations to the popping of the Wall Street conceit that the new economy had made hard times a relic of the past.

"For example," he writes, "top political and business leaders in America have for too long overestimated the value of what they imagine are close personal ties to China's leaders. In America, we have often heard references to 'my friend [the prime minister]' or 'my good friend [the president].' Yet when the American ambassador to China, Joseph Prueher, tried to contact his carefully cultivated friends in the Chinese military as the crisis began, they were nowhere to be found. This points to an important lesson. Washington sometimes imagines that friends in China will be both willing and able to save the … relationship in case of real trouble."

The Chinese hold a similar conceit, that they understand America while remaining inscrutable themselves. "The Chinese study America because America is the superpower," the Chinese ambassador, Yang Jiechi, told a group of American business executives and corporate lobbyists the other day, "but the Americans do not make such a study of China." What Chinese diplomats see, in fact, is not ignorance of China but insights ignored in the headlong pursuit of profits. Selling the "oil for the lamps of China" is the illusion that has been a driving obsession of American big business since Noah was a boy.

The Republicans are not always quick to get it it's the mercantile party, after all and the corporate Republicans who run the party will put up with any insult or injury to keep Wall Street humming with the grease of greed. "The president believes as a result of this conclusion, and the manner in which the diplomacy was handled, that the framework for a productive relationship with China has been preserved," the president's press agent told reporters.

Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, repeated the argument that trade would eventually make small-d democrats out of the Chinese communists, that any day now the old men in Beijing will wake up as compassionate conservatives, full of remorse and eager to quit brutalizing Chinese peasants. "I think we all believe that trade with China, the effort to try and build an entrepreneurial class in China, to try to bring some freedom to that society through freer economics, is an important goal," she said.

No, not "all." This is the argument first used by George W.'s daddy, and it was tired argument then, that the path to the Chinese soul runs through the purse. Two decades on, Beijing's abuse of its own people has intensified, and in the wake of Hainan, the temperature, text and tone have changed in Washington.

"This incident calls into question our current policy of sending American trade dollars to a nation that has displayed signs of hostility toward the United States," says Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, a Republican sponsor of legislation to overturn trade law favorable to the Chinese. Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, another Republican, agrees. "The Chinese didn't act in a normal way, so it brings the trade deal under greater scrutiny," he says.

The thrill is clearly gone from the romance. The first rule of good business, as any madam could tell you, is that what you get is what you pay for. Hainan taught us to listen to the lady.

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