Courtesy Reuters

Don't Break the Engagement


After almost three years of calm, the American debate over China policy is set to heat up again. Like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush came into office pushing for a tougher approach to Beijing. And like his predecessor, Bush soon changed his tune. But if the Clinton administration's shift reflected a deep-rooted embrace of the logic of engagement, the Bush administration's shift has appeared more tactical, reflecting a realist appreciation for alliances of convenience during times of crisis. Now that the initial and most urgent phases of the war on terrorism have passed, China policy is likely to find its way back onto the agenda of hard-liners who consider the country a strategic competitor. They are likely to be joined by those who think that tough talk about trade deficits and China's human rights violations makes for good campaign politics. With the bilateral trade deficit now at $120 billion, Beijing's reported backsliding on human rights, and its heavy-handed diplomacy with Hong Kong and Taiwan, 2004 could be a banner year for the critics of engagement. Yet a return to China-bashing and to a strategy of containment would be a mistake. The past 30 years have demonstrated that engagement works -- if not exactly in the way its advocates predicted.

Supporters of engagement long argued that it would help tame China through a traditional pattern of modernization: economic growth and increased connection with the outside world would spur the development of a Chinese middle class that would in turn press for capitalism, democracy, and peace. But in fact, although China has gotten richer, economic reforms have not led directly to political ones. Economic liberalization is indeed breeding a middle class with a new set of demands, including protection of private assets, access to unfiltered information, and a greater political voice. So far, however, the middle class has not organized in any meaningful way to push for wholesale political change. Instead, that change is occurring primarily in response to the negative

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