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One China?

March 20, 1996

IN the confrontation between Taiwan and China leading up to Taiwan's first direct presidential election on March 23, the United States has watched anxiously from the sidelines, uncertain as to the role it should play.

On the one hand, the United States recognizes the mainland Chinese Communist government as the official government of "one China." On the other hand, the emergence of genuinely democratic government in Taiwan seems to beg for U.S. support.

The United States is no impartial observer; it has commercial interests in both China and Taiwan. And while U.S. investment in Taiwan still exceeds that in China, China is clearly becoming one of the world's most formidable economic powers -- an economic dynamo that the United States is understandably hesitant to alienate.

U.S.-Chinese relations have been characterized at times by collaboration and mutual goodwill and at other times by betrayal and hostility. Contributions to The Atlantic through the years have documented this evolving relationship.

In "The Break-up of China, and Our Interest in It" (August, 1899) an anonymous contributor pointed out that in the wake of the Sino-Japanese war, other nations were taking advantage of the Chinese government's extreme weakness to exploit China's "immense general market." If America did not move to "buttress the tottering colossus of China," the author contended, the favorable diplomatic and trade relations that the United States had long enjoyed with the dynastic Chinese government would be in jeopardy.

In "The Chinese Boycott" (January, 1906) John W. Foster criticized America's discrimination against Chinese immigrants in America as racist, and emphasized that such behavior was especially offensive given the pains the U.S. had taken to secure friendly diplomatic relations with the Chinese government. Despite U.S.-government affirmations of "reciprocal and sincere friendship," and the fact that the United States had granted China "most favored nation" status in 1868, the United States persisted in mistreating and expelling Chinese immigrants. It was this behavior, Foster explained, that had incited a Chinese boycott of American trade then in effect.

In "A Parliament for China" (December, 1909) Paul S. Reinsch described China's efforts to transform its position in the world of global politics from that of a weak, exploited pawn to that of a competent, international power by developing a Western-style parliament.

In "A Plea for the Recognition of the Chinese Republic" (January, 1913) Ching Chun Wang proudly declared that "we have transformed our immense country from an empire of four thousand years' standing into a modern democracy," and asked that the United States lend its support to the fledgling government through official recognition: "She stretches out her hands to America first, because she prefers to have her best friend be the first in giving her this deserved encouragement."

In "China: Time for a Policy" (April, 1957) the renowned China scholar John K. Fairbank evaluated policy options toward newly Communist mainland China and considered the extent to which the United States should commit itself to supporting and defending an independent Taiwan. "Our opportunity and that of our friends on Taiwan," he argued, "is to help develop there an economy, a political process, and a body of trained personnel, within the Chinese world but free of Peking's totalitarian control, as an investment for a happier day when these same ideals may apply to all the Chinese people."

Ten years later, in "Dragon Under Glass: Time for a New China Policy" (October, 1967) history professor and former special assistant to the U.S. State Department James C. Thomson Jr. argued that the time had come for the United States to reconcile itself with Communist China, and to begin to initiate civil interaction with its government. Until China's adoption of communism, Thomson explained, Americans had "admired Chinese culture, liked the Chinese people, delighted in Chinese food....Our emotional investment in China was uniquely high, far out of line with our strategic or economic stakes." To be able to progress to a more constructive relationship with China, he suggested, America would need first to overcome its bitterness toward what it had come to think of as China's "betrayal" of United States good intentions by becoming communist.

In "China's Andrei Sakharov" (May, 1988) China commentator Orville Schell profiled Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, whose outspoken criticisms of socialism and the Communist party had spurred student protest movements, planted seeds of doubt in the minds of party members, and frequently landed him in trouble with party leadership. Schell potrayed Fang as a hero in the crusade for modernization and democratization in mainland China.

In "Once Again, Long Live Chairman Mao" (December, 1992) Schell considered the importance of Chairman Mao's recent emergence as a pop culture icon in China. Though perceived as a heartening reaffirmation of traditional party values by many hard-line communist leaders, Schell suggested that the phenomenon might instead indicate an erosion of socialist values by the forces of commercialism.

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