Instead of brusquely dismissing Beijing’s protest, the Clinton administration went out of its way to be accommodating. While declining to bar Chen from landing at Los Angeles International Airport, administration officials hastened to assure the Chinese government that Chen was making only a “brief” transit stop and that he would hold no meetings and conduct no public activities while on U.S. soil. In reality, Chen plans to stay overnight in Los Angeles, and a California businessman hoped to give a reception in his honor. Several journalists - and even some members of Congress - have also asked to meet with Chen.
The State Department has done everything possible to prevent such interaction. Indeed, its conduct was so intrusive that Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) accused the department of attempting to “quarantine” Chen and deny him the rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
The administration’s conduct is disgraceful but not surprising. It is reminiscent of the policy adopted more than five years ago when then-Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui requested a visa to attend a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University. The administration’s initial response to objections by the Chinese regime was to offer assurances that the visa request would be denied. Only after Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding that Lee be allowed to come to the United States did the administration beat a hasty retreat.
The proper response to Beijing’s attempts to block the visits of Lee and Chen would have been a firm rebuff. Indeed, the episodes created an opportunity to throw a favorite objection made by Chinese officials back in their faces. The Beijing government habitually responds to U.S. protests about its egregious human-rights record by denouncing “interference in China’s internal affairs.” Yet Chinese leaders don’t hesitate to try to dictate America’s visa policy or decide whether a traveler in transit can set foot on American soil.
U.S. officials should have told their Chinese counterparts that such matters are none of Beijing’s business. The Chinese regime would have a legitimate objection if - and only if - executive-branch policymakers held official meetings with a Taiwanese leader. Otherwise, any resident of Taiwan should be able to visit the United States, speak at public gatherings, give interviews to journalists, and even meet with members of Congress without interference. If Beijing doesn’t like such manifestations of a free society, too bad.
The administration’s excessively deferential behavior toward China not only betrays important American values; it is potentially dangerous. Chinese leaders are impressed with quiet displays of strength and pride; they have justifiable contempt for fawning behavior. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has all too often engaged in the latter.
In addition to its campaign of diplomatic appeasement regarding the Lee and Chen visits, the administration acquitted itself poorly in May 1999 in responding to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Beijing following NATO’s inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It was certainly appropriate for Washington to apologize - once - for the bombing and to offer generous compensation to the victims and their families. It was troubling, though, to see U.S. officials apologizing to China again, and again, and again.
Even worse, the administration responded to the violent, week-long attacks on the U.S. embassy and the U.S. ambassador’s residence - clearly conducted with the connivance of the Beijing regime - with nothing more than anemic diplomatic protests. The proper response would have been to recall the ambassador (who was scheduled to retire in any case) and, more important, announce that appointment of his successor would be delayed until Beijing apologized and made explicit assurances that it would provide appropriate protection for embassy property in the future. Other contacts between the two governments should have been curtailed as well, to show Washington’s displeasure.
Such actions would have made it clear to Beijing that the United States was not about to be bullied and intimidated. Unfortunately, the administration’s actions conveyed precisely the opposite message.
Few people would dispute that it is important for the United States to maintain a cordial relationship with China. But there is a big difference between that goal and having U.S. officials abase themselves when China’s Communist rulers make outrageous demands or engage in outrageous conduct. The Clinton administration seems incapable of grasping that distinction.