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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002

Forget Marx -- Beijing now looks to U.S.

HONG KONG -- If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Washington should feel highly complimented by Beijing. Over and over, China has shown that America is its role model and that its goal is to be more like the United States.

Thus, when the Chinese government decided that President Jiang Zemin, like his U.S. counterpart, needed his own official plane, they quite naturally decided to buy an American-manufactured aircraft, the Boeing 767-300ER. It was to become the Chinese equivalent of "Air Force One," the U.S. presidential plane.

But before the jetliner, refitted in San Antonio with special amenities for Jiang, was due to make its maiden voyage, Chinese officials discovered more than two dozen electronic listening devices embedded throughout the plane, including in the presidential toilet and in the headboard of his bed.

For a brief moment, there was fear that the incident would mar the summit meeting scheduled for Feb. 21-22 between U.S. President George W. Bush and Jiang. Surprisingly, however, the Chinese decided not to make an issue of it. It would be difficult to imagine the U.S. keeping quiet if Americans had discovered evidence that Chinese agents had bugged Bush's plane. But the Chinese evidently decided that the Sino-American relationship was too important and did not want this incident to derail the Bush-Jiang summit.

In another example of China's high regard for things Western, especially American, the China Securities Regulatory Commission has decided that, effective April 1, all enterprises issuing shares whose books have already been checked by Chinese auditors should get a "supplementary audit" from a foreign firm, such as Arthur Andersen. Thus, at a time when Andersen is experiencing extremely embarrassing publicity in the U.S. because of its Enron connection, the firm is enjoying a boom in China, with two new offices planned.

The Chinese have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Experience shows that Chinese sentiments can easily turn against the U.S., as they did following the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and the collision between a Chinese jet and a U.S. EP-3 spy plane.

But, once things settle down, Chinese admiration for the U.S. remains unshaken. Chinese students still clamor for admittance to American schools, and Chinese customers still put their trust in American products, as the purchase of the presidential jetliner illustrates.

All too often, however, these sentiments are not reciprocated by the U.S. In fact, given the negative attitudes toward China in Congress and in the media, any positive remarks about China often have to be offset by harsh criticisms in order for the speaker not to be seen as an apologist for Beijing. Thus, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while saying that the bilateral relationship was "back on an improving track," also felt obliged to emphasize that the U.S. did not agree with China on Taiwan, human rights, religious freedom and missile proliferation.

Powell also made it clear that the U.S. will discuss sensitive political issues during the presidential visit, including charges that China is engaging in missile proliferation, as well as human rights issues. China, on its part, has made it clear that it wants greater American understanding on the Taiwan issue.

Beijing, of course, has other differences with Washington. After Bush used the term "axis of evil" to describe North Korea, Iran and Iraq, China made known its displeasure through a spokesman who said "we disapprove of the use of such words in international relations." And, in the Middle East, Beijing is giving moral support to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while Washington backs Israel.

Still, China has behaved in a very restrained fashion. It supported the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, the first time it had taken the side of a developed country against a Third World nation. And it has not objected to a U.S. military presence in a country on China's periphery.

Beijing has already agreed to broadcast live an address Bush will make at Qinghua University, as well as a Bush-Jiang joint press conference, allowing the American leader to speak directly to the Chinese people. True, this occurred when Clinton visited in 1998 but, at that time, no announcement was made in advance and so there weren't many people sitting by their televisions. This time it will be different.

Washington picked a highly symbolic date for the Bush visit -- the 30th anniversary, to the day, of U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to Beijing. Although the Nixon visit ended more than two decades of hostility, the Bush visit is unlikely to make many breakthroughs. Even though China is now seen as a friend, at least where the war against terrorism is concerned, the U.S. is still keeping China in its place, with Bush pointedly visiting American allies Japan and South Korea before going to China.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong.

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