China's California Roll

It was definitely the new China that Beijing's ambassador to the United States was selling last week. Forget about the insane Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward. Let's talk about economic development, mutual cooperation and tackling common problems.

And so, at a swank reception at a Beverly Hills gallery, with a political Who's Who of Los Angeles in attendance, Li Zhaoxing depicted China as a nation passionately focused on improving the lot of its people.

The next day at an Asia Society luncheon, the veteran diplomat, spurning the formality of a written text, jumped right to the question-and-answer period, getting testy only when Tibet and Taiwan came up.

Clearly this past week, Li, previously China's UN ambassador, was on a California roll: That night, at a restaurant in Los Angeles' Chinatown, a throng of 500 Southern Californians, representing 72 civic groups friendly to the People's Republic of China, watched the urbane diplomat crack jokes, slap backs and seem as comfortable in the city as a local politician.

It was the diplomat as showman, and it was a good show, indeed.

What did his show tell? That China desperately wants a new image in America to go with its new reality back home. We already know that the new image is more than just diplomatic sleight-of-mouth; at a private briefing in Washington earlier this month, Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, reviewed the combined impact of President Jiang Zemin's 1997 U.S. visit and Clinton's return summit visit this summer.

Since then, he said, the People's Republic of China has shown exceptional cooperation on tough issues such as cooling down North Korea, opening channels with Tibet's Dalai Lama and coping with environmental issues such as pollution. Roth, a hard-boiled Washington foreign policy hand and no slouch in the toughness department, even allowed himself a ray of optimism on the volatile Taiwan issue.

Eleven days earlier, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan had revealed in New York before the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and the Asia Society that China "will adopt an even more flexible policy toward Taiwan than that toward Hong Kong and Macao."

And 12 days later, a dramatic, long-overdue event occurred: A senior envoy from Taiwan, the offshore island that broke away from the mainland in 1949, met with Jiang Zemin to discuss longstanding cross-strait issues. It was the highest level bilateral contact between Beijing and Taipei in 50 years.

It will therefore seem odd to break the current mood of semi-euphoria with a new worry about Sino-American relations, when right now they are as good as they've been in memory. But there's potential trouble brewing. China has become increasingly wary about joining the worldwide free-trade group, the World Trade Organization, apparently having calculated that the market-opening compromises needed to secure U.S. approval of its membership bid are too steep, at least for now. As Foreign Minister Tang grumbled, in his otherwise conciliatory New York speech, people "should stop asking China to make unrealistically big concessions."

This is more than a minor hitch in Sino-American bilateral relations. China's WTO wariness coincides with its huge trade surplus over the United States - one that could reach $60 billion by year's end (an official U.S. figure that China disputes). What happens in U.S. domestic politics if the U.S. economy, heretofore the world's champ, tanks?

During the last recession in the United States, politicians blamed Japan's restrictive trade practices. This time, China may become the politicians' punching bag. The effect could set back relations.

Fortunately, the current crop of Beijing's leaders is far from insensitive to the outside world. Listen to Stanford University Professor Mike Oksenberg at a recent Pacific Basin Economic Council conference in Los Angeles: "The current leadership of China is among the most effective - if not the most effective - in the world today."

Oksenberg is no Sino-apologist; a growing number of China experts agree with this respected scholar. But he also concludes, rightly, that "China's decision to move away from WTO is a big mistake." It plays into the hands of protectionists on both sides of the U.S. political aisle - on the Democratic left as well as the Republican right.

The true leaders on both sides of the Pacific need to steer their countries away from this destructive course. To signal Washington, Beijing should drop phony scientific claims that bolster the ban on Pacific Northwest wheat and California and Florida citrus. That would help.

But then who, on the U.S. side, will have the courage to explain to the American people that China's trade advantage underwrites its ability to cushion the crushing domestic effect of the Asian financial crisis?

It's estimated that for every percentage drop in China's growth, 5 million more Chinese become unemployed. The prospect of social instability inside China is the nightmare of Asia. That's why the trade deficit with China is the best form of foreign aid America ever gave.

Imagine: When you buy something made in China, you may be contributing to regional stability and Asian economic recovery. But try to find a politician who will tell you that - except, of course, one from China, like Li.

Los Angeles Times columnist Tom Plate teaches at the University of California.