President Clinton’s upcoming visit to China carries with it tension and hope. As the last remaining communist superpower, China’s track record of human rights abuses and restrictions on freedom of speech must be confronted head on — in the name of democratic freedom. On the flip side, despite American-Chinese tensions, China does not have to be viewed as an immediate threat. American companies have strong presence in China, including Minnesota companies like Medtronic, 3M and Honeywell. It is in America’s best interests to respect China for what it is, while seeking to improve relations for a more peaceful future.
President Clinton supports open engagement with China, and his diplomatic skills will be closely watched by both countries. It’s easy for Americans to dismiss what they perceive to be violations of basic human rights, but this is a democratic view, not a communist one. China has a long and rich history, and its juxtaposition to the United States is centuries in the making. Clinton and the rest of America must respect China’s history and culture. At the same time, commercial interests must not blind the American public from aggressively pursuing China on a political and social level, namely calling an end to human rights abuse and oppression.
In October 1997, Jiang Zemin was the first president of China to visit America since the historical visit of Deng Xiaoping in 1979. The summit was broadcasted to an estimated 100 million people worldwide. A broadcast of such epic proportions is bound to force China to reflect on its current policy of restricting freedom of the press, religion and other personal freedoms taken for granted by most Americans. This is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, organizations like Amnesty International will continue to influence talks by keeping China’s track record of abuses forever in the media eye. What will help make Clinton’s visit successful is if China can be persuaded to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Other measures that would make the journey successful are calling for increased access to the media and allowing various humanitarian organizations greater access to Chinese prisons. Many of these organizations strongly call for the release of political and religious prisoners.
To get a journalist’s visa in China, a formal invitation from a government-approved organization is required. However, visiting China is not the ordeal one might expect. Many American tourists visit China on a regular basis. The political tensions are always in the background, but many people manage to exchange cultural ideas without fear of negative engagement. Allowing for a greater flow of cultural exchange will combat political conflict. Relations with China will undoubtedly remain strained for some time to come, as to be expected between countries with such oppositional political structures. But democracy is not just the voice of America; it is fast becoming the voice of freedom the world over. It appears China is at least willing to listen.