China Brushes Off Bush’s Calls for Reform

The president’s trip to China produced little progress and disappointed many.

What happened

President Bush returned mostly empty-handed from China this week, after President Hu Jintao responded to calls for greater political freedom and economic fairness with vague assurances but no firm commitments. The White House said the visit, which came near the end of an eight-day tour of Asia, had not been expected to yield any breakthroughs, but paves the way for future progress. 'œThese things aren't things that happen with the snap of a finger,' said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. During his daylong stay in China, Bush challenged the Chinese on several economic issues, ranging from the U.S.-China trade deficit to China's tolerance of product piracy.

Bush addressed human-rights issues more gingerly. Attending a Protestant church service, he said he hoped 'œthe government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly.' During an appearance with Hu, Bush said, 'œWe encourage the Chinese to continue to make a historic transition to greater freedom.' The U.S. had previously drawn up a list of political prisoners it hoped China would release as a goodwill gesture, but China did not free any of them. On the contrary, during Bush's visit, the government arrested several additional political activists. 'œWe've certainly not seen the progress that we would expect,' said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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What the editorials said

That's an understatement, said the Los Angeles Times. If one image defines the president's China excursion, it was that of 'œa visibly uncomfortable George W. Bush' pulling futilely on a locked door, trying to escape nagging reporters. 'œThat locked door represents the inability of the U.S. president, or of any of the global markets he represents, to bring greater political freedoms to the world's most populous nation.'

If anything, conditions in China are worsening, said The Washington Post. 'œThe Chinese media, academia, religious groups, and the local Internet are all more tightly controlled now than they were when Mr. Bush last visited China, in 2002.' The policy of engagement with China assumes that drawing it into the global market 'œwould make political liberalization inevitable.' It's a good theory, but the Chinese aren't playing along. It's time to stop the coddling.

The China hawks 'œneed to pipe down,' said Newsday. China is no longer some second-tier nation that can be bullied into submission. 'œIt is a top trading power, ravenous consumer of energy, and major player in international politics.' And it boasts 'œthe world's largest standing army.' Urging China to embrace freedom is a worthy goal, but Bush is wise to realize that it can be accomplished only 'œwith positive gestures and consistent diplomacy, not through abrasive rhetorical challenges.'

What the columnists said

The engagement vs. estrangement debate misses the real point, said John Bersia in the Orlando Sentinel. China and the U.S. have no choice but to deal with each other. China needs the U.S. 'œto welcome it into the international mainstream and provide an accessible market.' The U.S., in turn, wants access to China's vast market, while trying to assure that China's rise is a 'œpeaceful' one. The fact that 'œmundane and practical' issues like trade and currency rules are now on the table shows how far the relationship has come.

The biggest news to emerge from Bush's trip was hardly mundane, said James Pinkerton in Newsday. It's now official: The U.S. is no longer 'œthe world's only superpower.' This foreshadows some potentially dangerous 'œcollisions' ahead. On Taiwan, 'œChina wants its island back, but we want Taiwan to stay independent.' And as China's thirst for oil grows, it will become far more aggressive in the Middle East. Nobody can say where this will lead, but one thing is undeniable: 'œIf we push them, they can push back.'

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