The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008


Morning Cheat Sheet

Bush, Clinton and China

First Lady Hillary Clinton toasts with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at the beginning of a state banquet in Beijing's Great Hall of the People Saturday, June 27, 1998. (AP)

By Peter Baker
Candidate Clinton was pretty tough on President Bush for his handling of China. He "coddled" a communist government that used deadly force to break up peaceful protests, the candidate said. The president had been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy toward China. "I would be firm," Clinton said. The United States should tell China to "observe human rights" in the future. "If we can stand up for our economics, we ought to be able to preserve the democratic interests of the people of China."

That was Oct. 11, 1992, the candidate was Bill Clinton and the president George H.W. Bush, just three years after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Either consciously or unconsciously Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday tried to emulate the moment, blasting George W. Bush for coddling China amid the violent crackdown on protests in Tibet and calling on him to skip the Summer Olympics in Beijing in August to make a point. This Bush administration, she said, "has been wrong to downplay human rights in its policy towards China."

The fact that Hillary Clinton would adopt the same tough line toward China during her presidential campaign as Bill Clinton did 16 years earlier would be less of a surprise were it not for her husband's intervening presidency. Bill Clinton abandoned his firm stance on China after taking office. The day after the debate where he accused the first Bush of coddling China, his campaign put out a statement blasting the "butchers of Beijing" and faulting the president for deciding "that we should give Most Favored Nation Status to Chinese communists who deny their people's basic rights." Soon after taking office, Clinton too was giving Most Favored Nation status to the Chinese communists and in 1998 became the first president to visit the "butchers of Beijing" since Tiananmen Square, even participating in a welcoming ceremony on the square. Two years later, he pushed through legislation making China's Most Favored Nation status permanent instead of requiring annual renewal.

Clinton came around to more or less the same conclusion as the two Bushes -- that China is too big, too important, too economically vital to try to isolate and that engagement through diplomacy and trade are the best ways to influence its behavior. He called his a "principled, pragmatic approach," much as the Bushes do their own policies. During a speech before leaving for China in 1998, Clinton rejected those who called on him to boycott, dismissing the argument "that somehow going there would absolve the Chinese government of its responsibility for the terrible killings at Tiananmen Square nine years ago or indicate that America is no longer concerned about such conduct." There was little to gain by snubbing his hosts, he said. "We do not ignore the value of symbols. But in the end, if the choice is between making a symbolic point and making a real difference, I choose to make the difference."

George W. Bush could not put it better himself. And yet there was Hillary Clinton saying yesterday that he should make a symbolic point by skipping the opening ceremony of the Summer Games while Bush says he can make a real difference by working with the Chinese. To be sure, Tiananmen was nine years in the past by the time Bill Clinton went as opposed to the Tibet crackdown just months removed from Bush's planned visit. And Hillary Clinton arguably has been tougher on the Chinese than her husband, at least to judge by her women's rights speech to a conference in Beijing in 1995.

But China often looks different when you're on the campaign trail than it does in the White House, even if you've been in the White House and are trying to get back there.

Posted at 9:37 AM ET on Apr 8, 2008  | Category:  Morning Cheat Sheet
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I agree with Yen. If Bush has any objections to China's human rights violations better to voice them there than a hollow jesture like boycotting.

Posted by: qualguy | April 9, 2008 12:49 PM

Hillary and Bill Clinton are probably right when they criticize human rights violations in China. But Bill Clinton despite rhetoric during the 1992 campaign did nothing to try and crack down on China.

Which was probably a good thing because, like it or not, it has gotten to the point where China is too big for the U.S. to push around as if they were Haiti or Zimbabwe.

We are going to have to trade with them and have an economic relationship with them regardless of the human rights violations of China. In the long term, the increase in economic freedom in China will hopefully lead to more political freedom.

Measures to needle the Chinese such as boycotting the Olympic opening ceremony as Hillary advocates serve little constructive purpose. We boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and they then boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. Little was accomplished.

It is doubtful if boycotting the 1936 Munich Olympics would have hurt Nazi Germany. One thing is sure, we would not have had Jesse Owens' heroics.

China bashing is detrimental to the relationship we have to build with China. Let's face it. We are not only big kid on the block anymore.

Posted by: Daniel Hancock | April 9, 2008 11:26 AM

I think Hillary and her campaign are struggling to get some attention. With all the turmoil in her camp, she has basically gone nuts. Anyboy running for president to call for a boycot of the Olympics ceremony just to gain a few political points is not good for this country. The main reason why Olympics is conducted is to put aside political differences and bring countries together.

China started occupying Tibet in 1949. That is more than half a century. Hillary did not ask for a free Tibet when her husband was in the white house. To my recollection in those days Bill and Hillary both wined and dined with the Chinese.

Hillary's political strategy is a bit old and people do not buy into her views anymore.

Posted by: Nancy | April 9, 2008 5:44 AM

Hillary has no right to criticize others about China policy. Her husband Bill codled and let the Chinese steal all our military secrets while he was president. Hillary herself was on the board of WalMart helping import Chinese goods into this country. There were so many chinese leaders and businessmen who have slept in the Lincoln bedroom while she was first lady. Her own campaign money bundler fugitive Norman Hsu is chinese.

Hillary basically has no moral values or ethics. She will say whatever shee needs to at a moment to get a few votes. She has no moral conscience.

Posted by: Jim | April 9, 2008 5:25 AM

Well said Adrian. Hillary is bottom-feeding again. Let's all go for the lowest common denominator and appeal to the whims of the mob and whatever that feels good. China's communist government is clearly less open than the US and authoritarian in nature. However, people so often lose sight of the fact that it has been practicing reforms and has engaged the west on almost every issue. It has been liberalizing its instuitions and has lifted over 300 million people out of abject poverty. And there is no active military confrontation. This is not the Former Soviet Union or North Korea. If anything it has more in common with Taiwan and South Korea in the 1960's -- authoritarian dictatorships conducting market reforms and moving towards eventual political liberalization (through necessity). This historical parallel is often ignored in the policy debates. How to foster this transformation and curb Chinese Ultra-Nationalism is arguably the most important foreign policy challenges for the US in this century. Otherwise you are going to end up with a nuclear-armed hostile power with 4x our population and a bigger economy in 30-years. And humiliating their people (which a boycott of the Olympics will certainly be, since it is a civic event rather than a political event to the Chinese) as opposed to challenging their government on human rights would be the worst public policy imaginable. Go to the Olympics and voice your concerns over human rights issues with the Chinese leaders with all of their 1.3-billion people watching would be far better.

Posted by: Yen Choweng | April 8, 2008 2:03 PM

So, Peter Baker's a weasel. What else is new?

Could he possibly be more clownish or pretend to be any dumber? I don't see how.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 1:32 PM

If Bush goes to China
Will it condone the actions
of Beijing tyrants?

Posted by: Tilly Lavenas | April 8, 2008 12:22 PM

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Posted by: PeterAcevedo | April 8, 2008 11:57 AM

Yes, it's true Bill Clinton's China policy was as bad as everyone else's. MFN, WTO. All administrations have allowed the illegal export into the US of the fruits of forced labor: Bill had 2 people in customs checking on this.

Obama will do likewise, as will anyone else.

It is up to the people of the US to get us out of bed with the Peoples Republic of Hell. Boycott them entirely, and push the politicians.

PRC have our currency, they hold our bonds. We would not have allowed the Soviet Union to get us in such a position. China is no better, if not worse, and potentially the deadliest enemy we have.

Posted by: Chicago1 | April 8, 2008 11:34 AM

This idea of embarrassing China right is not right. Where were all these politicians when China was awarded the 2008 Olympics? In my view, they should have started opposing it then - NOT when it is politically convenient to do so. How come I've not heard Hillary's voice before this, especially on the issue of Darfur & China? Our athletes need support too - what will happen to them if we boycott the olympics now? China's eminence became more visible during the Clinton administration, why didn't they stop it? then Bush simply went overboard by borrowing heavily from China. Now that we owe them our national debt - do u really think Bush will boycott?

Posted by: Concerned Citizen | April 8, 2008 11:31 AM

This is why Hillary has not done well among well-educated people. It's easier said than done. How can you boycott the Olympics, argubly the most important event in the People's Replic of China's history since 1949, when Mao declared the founding of the country, without thinking twice, even 10 times, about what kinda retaliations from China that you're going to get in return. A mere message from China's central bank officials, that it's going to switch to EURO from the greenback for foreign reserve, will send the King-no-more dollar to sink hole overnite. And people, especially, poor people will be affected most by this: inflation. You've got to pay $5 for a gallon of gas, $5 for a gallon of milk and much more. Her husband had to change his mind once he faced the reality (faing China as a president rather than a candidate). Compared with 16 years ago, China is much stronger with its GDP almost tripled from the 1992 level, things Bill couldn't achieve then, how can Hillary get it done now or in the future? She's really a politician that is going to SAY anything just to get elected.

Posted by: Adrian | April 8, 2008 11:24 AM

American perceptions of China range from the cute cuddly Panda Bears to the great evil empire. No where do you hear about how for the long term future US interests - economic, political, and defense interests,- are unequivocally tied up with China. No where do you hear about the defining issue for China - how can a free market coexist with a tightly controlled communist political system. Capitalist economies do not flourish with free flow of information, something antithetical to communist systems. Without capitalism, the Chinese economy and society would collapse the same way the Soviet Union did. It is almost like the Chinese govt is running a perpetual motion machine to try to keep it all going, while they try to figure out a new structure. America needs to stay fully engaged with China as the risks of "evil China" in the likes of Tianneman and Tibet and Taiwan will be there as China transitions to whatever state its going to be. Embarassing China may make some feel good, but is the wrong strategy for and culture where embarrassment is a serious blow. Our dealing with China need to be firm and need to be focused on ways that really can impact policy in Beijing. Playing politics with the Olympics will not get us a "better China," and may in the end leave us in a far less effective position longer term.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 11:04 AM

Clinton's recent statement on the Olympics actually worry me a bit. It seemed like a display of saber rattling to distract from a recent flood of negative press (only punctuated by her bad weekend). As the article very clearly points out, China must be dealt with carefully and intelligently, and someone aspiring to be our President shouldn't lead with hollow rhetoric motivated by self-serving political expediency. Even Nancy Pelosi--one of China's most outspoken critics--hasn't called for a boycott of the opening ceremony. Pelosi wants a boycott on the table as a political leverage, but calling for it outright is just careless and shortsighted.

Simply put, Clinton's political grandstanding on China is exactly the type of behavior we need our next president to avoid.

Posted by: Justin | April 8, 2008 10:37 AM

Hillary is taking the popular stance to help her campaign, but indeed, will she keep that if elected? Then again, with figures like this, she has a lot of work to do;

Hillary vs. Barack:
The Google Factor-

Posted by: Dave | April 8, 2008 10:29 AM

Not that Bush doesn't deserve it but I think it kind of classless (big suprise) for Clinton to demand he boycott the ceremony. Even if Bush were a totally free actor, there are strong arguments that can be for attending (athletes, spirt of the games, etc) and for boycotting it (China's human rights, etc). It would be a difficult decision for anyone, especially someone like Bush who's not that swift. It's very easy for Hillary to stand on the sidelines, sniping and making demands like this.

You'd think Clinton would know how much it s*cks to be sniped at!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 10:28 AM

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign says she is about to call on President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony at this summer's Olympics in Beijing.

Should the U.S boycott the Olympics?


Posted by: Jeff, Austin TX | April 8, 2008 10:18 AM

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