Author James Mann, a former China correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, takes us on a scholarly trek in his book About Face, A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, and shows how Republican and Democratic administrations alike drove China policy, keeping a frequently angry Congress helplessly looking on.
The presidency of Jimmy Carter marked the beginning of what became a predictable pattern. Each incoming president initially sneered at the compromising attitude of the previous one only to end up behaving in much the same way. Fearing the Soviet Union more than China, the Pentagon was pushed by Cold War priorities to co-operate with the People Liberation Army. American military surveillance equipment and not so modern weaponry augmented an already brisk trade in military aircraft engines. The idea was to pin down at least one Soviet army in the East if the Soviets were ever to attack in the West.
As the Democratic candidate, Carter had attacked Nixon's successor Gerald Ford for his cozy relationship with China, but was then dealt a dose of his own medicine by Republican candidate Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign. "No more Taiwans, no more Vietnams, and no more betrayals of friends and allies by the US Government," Reagan railed from the hustings. Yet he too buckled under the pragmatic pressures of office and continued the Carter compromise policy of limiting arms sales to Taiwan demanded by China.
China's opening up to capitalism in the 1980s, as well as a promising democratic ferment in the land, sweetened American attitudes. George H.W. Bush, a former US representative in Beijing, became president in 1988 and was the only one in recent times who started off his administration prepared to continue the old China-friendly policy. But much to his own surprise he was to reluctantly preside over its entire reversal – hence the book's title – in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. More bark than bite measures were quickly enacted, and this lack of punitive spirit on Bush's part was readily exploited by incoming Bill Clinton, who insisted the US "stop coddling China."
The eventual thaw in Sino-US relations resulted more from the development of China's overall relations with the world. China established relations with Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea, and Japan dropped its pro-US, anti-China policy because it was bad for business. Then British Prime Minister John Major came cap in hand to Beijing to ease the 1997 Hong Kong handover. Finally, the US came calling when it needed China to support its Security Council resolution to fight the first Gulf War. China abstained, and did not use its veto.
But in the emotional aftermath of June 4, many of the Chinese students resident in the US, educated and computer savvy, were disappointed with the developing business-as-usual attitude towards China, and lobbied to tie China's Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status to human rights performance.
This issue helped Clinton win in 1992, but he found himself in the same fix as his predecessors, trying to mesh harsh campaign rhetoric with the subtle needs of office. A Democratic Congress, pleased with its presidential victory, first sought to pass a bill on MFN-human rights linkage. But Clinton charmed this one away with a seemingly fierce but ultimately toothless executive order of his own. Also undermining any anti-China campaign from the White House was the stampede of business to China that year, with US$111 billion tied up in 83,437 contracts signed with China in 1993. Clinton eventually managed to adroitly sidestep this bilateral tar baby by getting China to join the multilateral World Trade Organization.
About Face is a fascinating tale. While there is little reason for readers of the previous edition to buy the work, its renewed availability provides new readers an opportunity to acquire a first-rate book by an author who combines a scholarly approach with a gentle sense of humor. Mann's second edition comes with an afterword, which updates the story in terms of what was then secret, but has now been declassified. But it concerns incidents the author covered in his original text. More a work of history than journalism, the afterword adjusts, and largely confirms, what the author originally wrote, and occasionally adds detail that would mostly interest contemporary historians specializing in the 1972-1999 period of US-China policy.
About Face, A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, by James Mann, published by Vintage, Price: US$20
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