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Careful, Boys and Girls; You’re in Chinatown Now

A funny thing happened to America’s two leading Republican figures on the way to China last week.

They’ve slipped on their political base, landing on the mainland in the weakest of positions since they first took office.

One can only hope that Beijing won’t choose to take too much advantage of them!

First to escape to the mainland for relief from the American political pressure cooker is the head of the world’s eighth-largest economy, California , if only a U.S. state could itself be a country.

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Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger , the politician, world-brand “Terminator” actor and businessman , was almost terminated himself in the recent statewide election here. Macho-man was soundly rebuked by the voters on every issue that he put forward. It was so embarrassing that if this election had been a movie (instead of an actual political event), Hollywood would never have released it, it was that bad.

President Bush also visited Beijing. Like Schwarzenegger, America’s other prominent Republican has been taking a political beating lately. The Texan’s performance-approval ratings are about as abysmal as the Terminator’s. If Bush is not quite a lame duck yet (more than half his second term remains left to turn things around), he is surely one wounded duck.

This, in a way, is too bad.

The Bush administration has done an arguably competent job with Sino-U.S. relations. Its ambassador in Beijing, for example, is anything but one of those political hack-clowns that the administration has been so fond of miscasting into important jobs. Clark T. Randt Jr., a fluent Chinese Mandarin speaker with decades of experience working in China, has been an asset to the United States. The president’s trade negotiators have worked hard to hammer out Chinese import deals that are tough enough to calm down the protectionist portions of Congress without adding to China’s rising unemployment misery.

Competence in Sino-U.S. diplomacy is no longer an option, it is an absolute necessity. In case the administration hasn’t noticed, while Iraq has been burning, Beijing has been sizzling. Quietly, Chinese diplomacy has become a force to be reckoned with.

It has forced the heretofore diplomatically low-key Japanese to notch up their act as well, and it has attracted attention not only in the region, but around the world. The bottom line is that, more often than not, the Chinese are prepared to act businesslike and get down to work.

The recently cut textile import-restriction deal with Washington showed anew that they want to be seen not as Red firebrands but as a reasonable China eager to shed bad habits while trying to make friends.

China is no longer to be fooled around with or laughed at. More than a few countries in Asia , especially Russia , view it more favorably than America.

And by hosting the Six-Party Talks on the future of North Korea, Beijing has cleverly managed to stay the unilateralist hand of the United States while, presumably, pursuing peace.

And Beijing won’t take much U.S. guff any more. When the State Department issued its annual Human Rights Reports, citing China for numerous violations, China countered by issuing its own report about alleged violations in the United States. Among them is the astonishing percentage of black males who are “guests” of the U.S. criminal justice system.

I’m sorry, America-firsters: But that’s a fair point.

China is not quite ready to lay claim to being an Athenian forum of free debate, to say the least. But as a growing power, it has forced the American president to rethink old myths and confront new realities.

In fact, our visiting president has learned much about China in his five years in office. Like his predecessor, he entered the White House with a raft of negative campaign rhetoric that was designed to appease his party’s hardliners but that otherwise made little geopolitical sense. Human-rights issues are always valid , anywhere, anytime , but behind the unique desk of the Oval Office the world looks different from the view on the campaign trail.

Constant condemnation makes sense only if you intend a policy of isolation.

Even if that were U.S. policy, it would scarcely work. A nation with more than 20 percent of the globe’s population is a bad candidate for isolation.

The truth is, as Bush enters China weaker than he ever has been as president of the United States, China, though facing many serious problems of its own, is stronger than it has ever been before. And the Chinese, not to mention the rest of Asia, are well aware of this.


Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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