History's Lessons

The rebels have been warned. Those who signed a so-called “Declaration of Independence” would be guilty of treason against the King. They would put in jeopardy their homes, their families, their very lives on an uncertain and – some though – foolish quest for freedom. Legend has it that John Hancock responded by making his signature unusually large – to ensure that King George III could read it without his spectacles.

The history of democracy is a compilation of such scenes – bravery and defiance in service to freedom. Today, because of the courage of millions, a fresh breath of freedom has found its way to most of the world. The Berlin Wall – like the cruel ideals behind it – is rubble in Easter Europe. For the first time ever, Russia now democratically elects its leaders. Japan, salvaged by the allies after World War II, is today a staunch democracy.

And then there is China. Have we served the cause of freedom in our dealings with this, the last great Communist dictatorship?

In the past week, China was accorded the honor of hosting the Olympics. While the United States had no direct role in that decision, the Bush administration withheld an opinion about whether Beijing deserved to host the games. Those in favor argued that hosting the Olympics would encourage democracy and human rights in China, since the eyes of the world would be on the Beijing dictatorship.

Of course, many of these same people are also urged continued trade and cooperation with China in 1989, after its leaders slaughtered hundreds – some say thousands – of peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. Engagement with China, their argument went, would encourage the leadership to clean up its human rights record and improve relations with Western nations.

More than a decade later, has China changed for the better? Is China a closer friend? In fact, anti-American views have been carefully cultivated by the regime. When Americans accidentally bombed a Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Chinese leaders accused the U.S. of deliberately killing Chinese civilians. “Evildoers Doomed to Meet Destruction” blared a typical headline from the Communist-controlled media – which also compared American military missions to the actions of Nazi Germany. The anti-Americanism had been so successful that every one of the 831 people polled by the Beijing Youth Daily said that the U.S. bombing was deliberate, according to research by Chinese historian Steven Mosher.

In the past few months, China detained and interrogated U.S. crew members from a plane that crash-landed on its soil as the result of a Chinese pilot’s aggressive flying – and then requested reimbursement for detaining our aircraft for months. China has arrested American citizens without clear evidence of any wrongdoing; it has tortured and murdered hundreds of members of the Falun Gong group; it has conducted threatening military exercises in the South China Sea to prepare China for an invasion of Taiwan and possible U.S. involvement. In recent days, China has signed a pact with Russia – and there are even reports that the two countries have practiced coordinated strategies in the event of a nuclear war with the United States.

And the Olympics decision has further emboldened this regime. As China’s vice-premier recently put it: “This shows that the international community has acknowledged the fact that China is marked by social stability and progress . . . and that its people are living a peaceful and comfortable life.”

Just before World War II, peace-loving nations thought the way to deal with a tyrant was to treat it as a friend. Yet as Hitler’s Germany conquered most of Europe, the allies learned firsthand the dangers of making concessions to a tyrannical regime – what Winston Churchill called “being nice to a crocodile in hopes that it will eat you last.”

Clearly, our dealings with China require a more realistic approach, not unearned rewards or wishful thinking. Let us not risk underestimating China, potentially finding ourselves in the midst of a conflict we could have prevented.

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