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China: Analysis From Washington -- Where Capitalism Has Triumphed

Washington, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall many post-communist countries continue to have a difficult time in making the transition from socialism to free market economics.

But as this week's accord between Washington and Beijing opening the way for China's accession to the World Trade Organization shows, there is one place where capitalism has triumphed almost absolutely: namely, as an element in the in the foreign policy calculations of major Western countries.

In part, this reflects the perceived decline in the level of international threats, a change that has allowed these governments to give a higher priority to the economic interests of their own populations.

But in a larger sense, this triumph of capitalism reflects a new set of assumptions about the relationship between economics and political change, one that some observers have suggested rests on a belief that economics determines politics every bit as strong as that held by communist governments in the past.

In commenting on the new agreement on Monday, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that Chinese membership in the WTO would simultaneously promote an expansion in trade between China and the rest of the world, liberalize China's political system, and "advance the rule of law" in that communist country.

Both American officials and many Western analysts have provided some evidence for such an outcome, one that promotes American values but does not require American criticism of foreign governments or action against them when they violate those values.

These observers argue that countries which have opened their markets to the outside world have been forced by competition to change their social and political arrangements. They note that there has been a secular trend toward greater openness in such societies. And they maintain that the WTO requires legal arrangements that are bound to spread. But critics have already attacked all of these assumptions as well as the logic as a whole as overly optimistic or worse. For example, Lawrence Kaplan, the executive editor of the U.S. journal "National Interest," has pointed out that no past effort to open Chinese markets has been as successful as its advocates have predicted.

The Open Door policy that the United States pursued a century ago also called for more access to Chinese markets, Kaplan notes, but it neither led to a dramatic expansion of Chinese trade with the outside world or promoted any fundamental shift in China toward greater democracy and freedom.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., of the Washington Post, has suggested in an article Tuesday that Beijing has used its earnings from foreign trade to solidify its dictatorship, to persecute religious believers and ethnic minorities, and to restrict freedom of the press, rather than to promote democracy and the rule of law.

Beijing's current campaign against the Falun Gong religious group, Dionne says, shows that "religious freedom is a right the Chinese government cannot tolerate." And he expresses doubt that the WTO membership will do much to change that, especially since Beijing has continued to persecute this group even as it negotiated with Washington.

Obviously, the debate between those who believe that economics alone will determine political outcomes and those who believe that political outcomes will require political efforts as well is likely to continue not only concerning Western policy toward China but also about the West's approach to the rest of the world.

But the fact that the debate is taking place does highlight that those celebrating the triumph of capitalism on this anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall may have been focusing on the wrong place, on the post-communist countries rather than on the longstanding democracies.