f the election were only about China policy, the choice would be easy: Reelect George W. Bush. An administration that has damaged U.S. interests in nearly every other part of the world has done a surprisingly good job in dealing with China. At a private dinner in Beijing just before the Olympics opened, the first President Bush said how impressed he was with what his son had achieved. (George H. W. Bush, still beloved in China after his days as the first permanent U.S. representative there in the 1970s, is known as Lao Bush, "Old Bush." His son is Xiao Bush, "Little Bush." The terms are not quite so blunt in Chinese—"Old" is more respectful, "Little" more affectionate. But still.) Lao Bush said that he had spoken recently with China’s president, Hu Jintao, who told him that under Xiao Bush U.S.-China relations were "better than ever before." And "as a proud father," Old Bush said, he considered that very good news.
What is good for Hu Jintao is not necessarily what’s good for America. But in this case, Hu and Bush were correct. This is the rare case where we can observe what the current Bush administration has done right—with the certainty that it can be done better by whoever follows him.
Bush’s main achievement is to remember, recognize, and constantly reemphasize that two contradictory-sounding points about China are both true, and that both are likely to remain true for a very long time. One is that China is a problem, for America and for the world. It locks up people arbitrarily, and was brazen enough to do so even while on display to the whole world during the Olympic Games. It tightly controls the national media. It crassly supports odious regimes that control crucial raw materials (America also has some experience in this field), and then blandly deflects criticism by saying that to try to stop evils in Darfur or Burma would be to violate its sacred principle of not interfering in others’ affairs.
China’s economic system has become much more integrated into America’s corporate structure than Japan’s ever was. Most of the exports that pour daily from Chinese companies are actually ordered and made by foreign-owned, largely American firms: Nike, Apple, Dell, Wal-Mart, and so on. From a strict economic-benefit standpoint, this interaction has helped many people in America: employees and owners of those brand-name companies, whose profits increase because of lower-priced Chinese products; consumers, especially those on tight budgets, who benefit as "the China price" holds retail prices down; and everyone in America who has taken advantage of China’s roughly $2 trillion subsidy of U.S. government debt. But the process has obviously hurt those who have lost factory jobs, and as China’s power expands, so could its harmful impacts on America. And this doesn’t even take us to food-safety problems, or possible conflict over Taiwan, or the future of Tibet.
But the second important truth is this: China is not going away. No one outside China can force or even entice the government to change practices outsiders don’t like. There is a short nationalist fuse here, which can be ignited very quickly by perceived slights (what is described here in official agitprop as "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people"). The world got a glimpse of this in the furious internal Chinese reaction to protests against the Olympic torch relay in cities around the world. But based on everything I have seen in two-plus years in China, the country is not "anti-American" in any deep way. The U.S. has a lot to gain from figuring out a way to work and live with China, and a lot to lose from failing to do so.
Anyone who thinks about climate change and the world environment knows that the problem will be easier to deal with if the Chinese are made into part of the solution, and flatly impossible if they are not. Anyone trying to work out a sensible defense policy for America will need to tamp down the neocons who tried to gin up a U.S.-China showdown in the early days of the Bush administration, and who will try to do so again. But America’s real defense issues will become immeasurably more expensive and difficult to resolve if China becomes a serious worldwide military challenge to America, as it simply is not now.
When George W. Bush has talked about China in the last few years, he has always made both points: we disagree with China, and we want to work with China. He showed this most recently in a speech in Thailand, just before he arrived for the Olympics. Bush, unlike most candidates to succeed him, had never wavered in his intention to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies. Staying away would have been a pointless insult, perceived as such by most Chinese. But at every point he also said: We think Chinese people deserve more liberties, and we think the government is wrong to lock them up.
There are problems with the overall Bush policy. He has let the Chinese use the Global War on Terror as cover for cracking down on their own Muslim minority. His officials have wasted too much time talking about the dollar-RMB exchange rate, which is a secondary issue. But on the whole, he has shown a nuanced and realistic worldview that … well, that makes you ache when you think of other areas of his policy.
Uncreative as it sounds, the challenge for the next president is to maintain the same balance, and do a better job of it. Continued adaption to changing realities; a better deal for the Americans who are being hurt by the economic interaction; much, much more aggressive progress on addressing China’s pollution problems. How do the two candidates measure up here?
Stump speeches and debate answers are a notoriously inaccurate guide. All candidates from both parties took a tough anti-China line in the primaries, most often citing Tibet and the poison-toy peril. This is how presidential politics works. On the campaign trail in 1992, Bill Clinton criticized Old Bush for coddling the "butchers of Beijing." In office, Clinton intensified U.S. interactions with China. You can call this capitulation or co-optation. To me, it’s the process of each new president recognizing the two truths about the country.
We don’t learn much from the candidates’ Web sites or their issues papers. Barack Obama’s is an earnest checklist of the main issues in the relationship. John McCain’s is a less detailed version of the same thing.
So we go on what we know about the candidates, their casts of mind and their past records in dealing with new issues. We want someone capable of seeing a big, complicated, important relationship that will affect American interests for decades to come—not someone who seizes on one isolated point or sticks to a slogan. We want someone who is willing to play chess, to think many moves in advance and not to take steps impatiently or out of pique. We need someone who can push back against the budgeters and threat mongers who will try to cast China as a military peril. We want someone who is ready to think creatively about how unavoidable global engagement can create opportunities rather than burdens for the Americans who have been hurt thus far. And we want someone who will speak up clearly and confidently about the political ideals that are the basis of the American republic.
On the last criterion, we have two candidates who are equally qualified to explain American ideals to the world. On all the others—it’s not even close.