Washington Post


On the Wrong Side

By Michael Kelly

Wednesday, July 28, 1999; Page A23

Back in the dear, dead days when the Democratic Party stood for dreams a bit loftier than clinging to power, the labor wing of the party liked to ask a question: "Whose side are you on?" It was a good question because it was an awkward one and an inescapable one. The question presents itself these days, awkwardly and inescapably as always, in the matter of Taiwan and China. Whose side are we on?

On the one hand, we have Taiwan, which is an ally and a democracy. It is not a perfect ally nor a perfect democracy (but neither is the United States). Formed out of the nationalist movement that lost China to Mao's Communists, Taiwan increasingly has wished for independent statehood. In recent years, as the island has become more democratic and more wealthy, it has become more aggressive in expressing this wish.

On the other hand, we have China. The People's Republic is a doddering, desperate despotism, in which a corrupt oligarchy presides, only by the power of the gun, over a billion people who would rather live in freedom. China has always regarded Taiwan as an illegitimately errant province, ultimately to be subjugated to Beijing's rule. In recent years, as China's rulers have found themselves increasingly uneasy on their thrones, they have attempted, in the usual last refuge of dictators, to excite popular support by threatening belligerence against an exterior enemy -- in this case, Taiwan.

For two decades, the United States has supported a deliberately ambiguous policy, which says that there should be "one China," but carefully does not say who should rule that China. Ambiguity worked pretty well for a long time, but it is a Cold War relic whose logic has expired, and its days are running out.

Two weeks ago, Taiwan's president, Lee Teng-hui, recognized this reality and said that henceforth Taiwan and China should deal with each other on a "state-to-state" basis. Beijing reacted with its usual hysterical bellicosity. This week, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan used a session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to again threaten Taiwan: "If there occur any action for Taiwan independence and any attempt by foreign forces to separate Taiwan from the motherland, the Chinese people and government will not sit back," Tang said. He added a warning to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to "be very careful not to say anything to fan the flames" of independence.

Not to worry. Neither Madame Secretary nor anyone else in the Clinton administration has the slightest intention of fanning freedom's flames. Quite the contrary. The administration has reacted to Lee's "state-to-state" remarks by repeatedly reassuring Beijing that the United States is entirely with it in this matter. On Monday Albright made a point of saying that Lee's efforts to back off of his remarks "thus far don't quite do it." So, we are on China's side.

We are on the side of a regime that, the administration's own Justice Department tells us, has engaged in (1) a massive and perhaps still ongoing campaign to steal America's most valuable nuclear secrets; and (2) an effort to corrupt the 1996 elections by funneling cash to, principally, the Clinton-Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

We are on the side of a regime that, the administration assures, is becoming more tolerant of political freedom. Is that so? Beijing has intensified the persecution of political dissidents since Clinton began his policy of "constructive engagement" with China. Most recently, Beijing has been hosting old-fashioned Stalinist show trials of democratic dissidents; three organizers of the fledgling China Democratic Party drew sentences of, respectively, 13, 12 and 11 years.

China also continues its campaign to destroy independent religious movements. According to the group Human Rights in China, the regime arrested 7,410 leaders of the Protestant house-church movement in two months last year. Currently, Beijing is undertaking a countrywide effort to stamp out the spiritual movement Falun Gong. The New York Times reports that more than 5,000 people have been arrested, and 1,200 government officials who are movement members have been shipped off to re-education schools to study Communist Party doctrine.

We are on the side of a regime that forces abortions on women who attempt to give "unplanned" births; a regime that exploits the accidental bombing of its embassy to incite anti-American riots, threatening U.S. citizens; a regime that continues to sell weapons of mass destruction to rogue states inimical to U.S. interests.

We are acting against a regime that seeks democratic independence and a society rooted in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Doesn't any of this strike anyone as odd?

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal.