Well, I guess Bill Clinton’s little civics lesson in China didn’t pay

The president explained to the Chinese the way an “open democratic
society” works. But I guess they just didn’t get it in Beijing.

On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued an official statement
demanding that Clinton take steps to rein in the U.S. Congress and put a
stop to the nasty, anti-totalitarian resolutions it has been passing
since the president returned to the states.

Beijing was most bugged by Senate votes reaffirming U.S. commitments
to Taiwan. China regards Taiwan as a rebel province which has stubbornly
refused to succumb to the allures of a worker’s paradise.

“We are strongly opposed and express our dissatisfaction,” explained
Foreign Ministry spokesman Tang Guoqiang in a story published in the
Hong Kong Standard but ignored by the Western press. Tang said the
congressional action amounted to “interfering in China’s internal
affairs” — an interesting charge coming from a regime that poured
millions into America’s last presidential campaign and is now telling
the president of the United States to muzzle an independent and
supposedly co-equal branch of government.

Some members of Congress are “tabling anti-China resolutions one
after the other trying to obstruct the improvement and development of
China-U.S. relations,” Tang continued. “They will not succeed in their

I’m going to take a wild guess that the word “tabling” lost something
in the translation — given the fact that Beijing would presumably like
such resolutions tabled.

“We hope that the U.S. government will adopt effective measures to
eliminate interference and prevent Congress from passing anti-China
resolutions so that Sino-U.S. relations will not be harmed,” said Tang.
Then he explained that the U.S. Constitution entitles the government “to
adopt effective measures to prevent the Congress from passing such

I’m going to take another wild guess that the U.S. Constitution
doesn’t translate very well into Chinese. Either that or Beijing is
confusing the Constitution with some recent executive orders issued by
President Clinton.

What goes on here? Is this just an example of cultural
misunderstanding? Could the Chinese leadership really be so ignorant of
how the U.S. political system works as to think the president can
effectively shut down debate in Congress? Or is this a less-than-veiled
threat to Clinton from a regime that has the goods on him?

Hmmm. Then again, maybe the Chinese aren’t so stupid. After all,
Clinton has been pretty successful at bullying this Congress into
inaction. Maybe they just expect more from their investment in Clinton.

For his part, you would think Clinton, safely back home in America,
would want to demonstrate that he is nobody’s handmaiden. He is, of
course, under scrutiny and increasing criticism for having benefited
politically from direct and indirect campaign contributions from Chinese
intelligence and the military. He is also being accused of winking at
business deals that aided China’s missile program and compromised
national security because they involved corporations that poured
additional dollars into his campaign and his party’s coffers.

You would think a harsh statement like this from the Chinese would
call for, at the least, a State Department rebuke. You would think it
would be an opportunity for the Clinton administration to straighten out
Beijing on the internal politics of the United States — where the free
exchange of ideas is welcome. Why, you might even have expected that
members of Congress would stand up and speak out against attempts to
intimidate them. Un-uh. Nothing. Silence. It didn’t happen. It wasn’t in
the Washington Post.

All in all, it was a very interesting lesson in power politics. I
don’t think it was the result of a diplomatic gaffe. I suspect messages
were being sent. Exactly what they mean, I don’t pretend to know. The
non-reaction of the “free press,” the president and the “loyal
opposition” also speaks volumes. China is being taken seriously — even
when its leaders issue seemingly ludicrous proclamations. Nobody’s
laughing in Washington.

Another thing is certain: The Chinese are no less tolerant of dissent
and disagreement — in their country or elsewhere — than they were the
day Clinton arrived in Beijing. If his goal was mutual understanding, he
seems to have fallen a little short.

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