HE TOOK PART in the murder of tens of millions of human beings and ruthlessly kept 10 times 10 million in bondage. If he was not a genocidal monster of the first rank – a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao – he stood high in the second rank. Deng Xiaoping's 92 years were filled with cruelty and blood, and his death should have been met with relief and celebration.
But that is not the way of the world – not the world of politicians, diplomats, and corporate paladins. Bill Clinton used the moment to praise "the continued emergence of China as a great power that is stable politically and open economically." The Economist filled its article on "Deng's China" with windy paragraphs about "Mr. Deng's embrace of markets" and charts tracking such key aspects of his legacy as "China's retail price inflation." Secretary of State Madeleine Albright observed blandly that "a smooth transition" would be of "great advantage to the Chinese, as well as all of us." The Wall Street Journal described the Deng reign as a "reform-obsessed era" in which "millionaires and stock markets worldwide returned" to China. The BBC assured its listeners that Deng had been a "a beloved figure."
The Establishment line boiled down to this: Deng was a tough old bird, but you could do business with him, and the less things change now that he's gone, the better.
Contemptible, but not surprising. Ten years ago, the diplomatic-industrial complex held that Saddam Hussein was a tough old bird, but one you could do business with. Twenty years ago, the same was said of Leonid Brezhnev. Sixty years ago, of Adolf Hitler. If the 20th century has taught us anything about the practitioners of foreign affairs, it is that some of them recognize an enemy when they see one – and most of them don't.
Over and over, it seems, the lesson must be learned anew: Appeasement fails. The only cure for tyranny is to challenge it, confront it, speak the truth about it. "Engagement" will not work. Neither will trade. Neither will detente, nor "quiet diplomacy," nor most-favored-nation status. The path of Chamberlain and Kissinger leads to ever more unspeakable human suffering. The path of Churchill and Reagan leads to freedom and democracy.
It has become a cliché to note that Clinton came to office blasting his predecessor for having "coddled" China's dictators, only to take the coddling to a new level of obsequiousness. In 1989, George Bush greeted the massacre at Tiananmen Square with silence. In 1997, Clinton invited Tiananmen's killer-in-chief to visit Washington. Gen. Chi Hoatian, now the Chinese defense minister, was showered with honors: a 21-gun salute, a Capitol Hill reception, a meeting with the president.
Ineluctably, appeasement induces moral numbness. Once you decide that the way to reduce Beijing's brutality is through commerce and cooperation, you must refrain from condemning the regime's atrocities. You hold your tongue. You avert your gaze. You regard each fresh abomination – the jailing of a prodemocracy activist, the sale of nuclear missiles to an outlaw state, the kidnapping of the 6-year-old Panchen Lama – as proof of the need for even closer engagement. No matter what the ruling junta does, you keep calm. You focus on economics, business deals, that big Chinese market. You tell yourself that Western human rights standards don't apply in the East. You lecture your critics that denouncing China's offenses will only make matters worse.
Nine years into the Bush-Clinton appeasement of China, Beijing's butchers have learned that they can get away with anything.
They have made it clear that Hong Kong's Bill of Rights and democratic elections are to be extinguished when the colony reverts to Chinese control; they have even designated the 60 sycophants who will form a rubber-stamp legislature.
They have imprisoned, killed, or exiled every known prodemocracy activist in the country.
They have targeted bombing runs and missile firings off Taiwan's ports, nakedly asserting the right to conquer the island by force.
They have persecuted, jailed, and tortured tens of thousands of Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang Muslims, and underground "house church" Christians.
They have sold nuclear reactors and cruise missiles to Pakistan and Iran, and chemical and biological weapons technology to Iraq.
They have imposed a ghastly population-control policy on Chinese women, subjecting those who get pregnant more than once to compulsory abortion and sterilization.
They have maintained a massive gulag of slave labor camps, the "laogai," in which millions of men and women are beaten, starved, and terrorized into producing goods for export to the West.
And Washington has acquiesced in all of it.
The China that Deng leaves behind is an ocean of misery, ugliness, and death, an empire as evil as the defunct Soviet Union was. Its economic indicators may be up a notch, but its people still bleed beneath the whip of Communist repression. Wherever Deng is now, he is answering for crimes beyond number.
Still, to the Bush-Clinton China hands, the Establishment media, and the Fortune 500 profiteers, Deng Xiaoping was all right. A tough old bird, but you could do business with him.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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