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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.

By Washington Post editors  |  April 8, 2008; 9:37 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Cheat Sheet  
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