Freud might diagnose the Chinese disease as split personality. Consider the symptoms.
Having just won the Olympics for 2008, China raises the distinct possibility that the athletes and spectators won't be safe when they arrive in Beijing. China wants to put a benign face on its repressive system. Just as the cheers, banners, and excitement over winning the Olympics subsides, the Chinese government puts Gao Zhan on trial.
Gao Zhan, 39, is a scholar at American University in Washington. She has met all the requirements for U.S. citizenship short of raising her hand and taking the oath of citizenship. The Chinese made no pretense that the trial was legitimate. No American officials were allowed to attend her trial and she was of course found guilty of spying for Taiwan. These trials were designed for Alice in Wonderland: Verdict first, evidence later. Her crime: Distributing photocopies of publications, already circulating everywhere else in the world, about Taiwan and women's rights.
Mrs. Gao, who had been held without a lawyer for 40 days, was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. Another scholar, also a U.S. resident, was sentenced to a long prison term for espionage, too. Coinciding with these verdicts, the Chinese expelled an American business professor, a naturalized citizen, who was found guilty of spying the day after the award of the Olympic games. He had been held for almost five months without being able to see his family.
All three prisoners were sent home two days before Secretary of State Colin Powell was to make his first visit to Beijing. The secretary and members of his delegation had speculated that the American residents would be freed as a gesture of "goodwill." Mr. Powell even characterized the U.S.-China relationship as on the "upswing."
If we're in the midst of an "upswing," we must pray never to see a "downswing." How on earth can the release of innocent people, convicted in a kangaroo trial, sentenced to prison terms and causing their families months of pain and anxiety be characterized as a gesture of "good will"? That's paying off a kidnapper and then praising him for letting the child go. It's heaping praise on the thug with the gun who finally releases his hostages.
But we'd be missing the point if we described the Chinese actions as crazy. The arrests of the scholars must be understood in terms of Chinese "cunning and deception," says an American official who studies Chinese diplomacy. "These are clever ways to raise the bar," he observes. "They say that if you even so much as Xerox unclassified documents on Taiwan, it's espionage. They are crushing the human rights movement, and anyone with U.S. connections who would try to discuss Taiwan policy can be jailed ."
In this version of hard-ball diplomacy, the Chinese are using their power to do harm that they believe is undoable on their diplomatic terms. Given the way Americans are so eager and compromising, some would say greedy, to accept anything the Chinese do in exchange for elusive trade - the Chinese sell far more stuff to us than we sell to them - who can say the Chinese are wrong?
But there's a risk lurking here for both China and its American investors. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld identifies it. "Money is a coward," he told me this week in a conversation at his office at the Pentagon. "People vote with their feet, and if (the Chinese) create an environment that is inhospitable to investment, the inevitable result is that investment will dry up, as it should."
The combination of an outward-looking Chinese economy moving toward capitalism and a communist dictatorship bent on self preservation, he says, taking note of the Chinese military budget that increased by double-digit percentages every year, is a formula for instability.
Five scholars with American connections have been arrested in China this year, and the purpose of the Beijing government seems clear - it wants to mute American criticism of Chinese repression. You can't blame them for keeping to the strategy: It's working.
Despite the outrage against its residents, the United States government did not object to the award of the 2008 Olympics to China. Nor did the arrests keep the business lobbies in the Republican Party - and in the Bush administration - from licking its chops in anticipation of more trading with the enemy. Colin Powell (if not Donald Rumsfeld) sees Sino-American relations moving in the right direction.
The Chinese, the secretary of State says, believe that America has a role to play in the region. "They are not trying to squeeze us out." They sure have an odd way of showing it. It's the United States that loses face.