Fighting terrorism: What's in it for China?

HONG KONG - President George W. Bush arrived in Shanghai for the APEC forum yesterday, two days earlier than expected. His decision to advance his trip by 48 hours has no doubt caused his hosts some inconvenience. The Chinese, though, are happy to accommodate the schedule change. When Mr. Bush cancelled the rest of his proposed Asian tour in the wake of Sept. 11, there was concern he might bow out of the APEC event. He promised to keep his date with Shanghai, and now he has done so.

Had the U.S. President arrived any sooner, he might have stumbled upon some other preparations for the forum. These included a nationwide campaign to hunt down "fugitives" inside China. Twenty-three thousand arrests were made in September alone, many of them Falun Gong members whose crime is to follow an eccentric meditation regime. Thousands more Falun Gong already languish in Chinese labour camps and mental hospitals. Several die, generally under mysterious circumstances, every month.

As well, the government rounded up the usual human rights suspects, fearing they might dare make their complaints public in Shanghai. Censorship of the Internet, the only source of real news for most people, has been heavy of late, with the Reuters, CNN, and BBC sites all blocked. (The block was lifted on Wednesday, a gift to international delegates who may want to do some online reading between meetings.) A popular Internet bulletin board used by journalists was also shut down.

Such preparations are automatic for any visit to China by an important foreign leader, especially a U.S. president. Ironically, in the case of President Bush and the APEC forum, authorities need hardly have bothered. The world is in crisis, and everyone fully expects the meetings this weekend to focus squarely on that crisis. Mr. Bush will be using the extra time in Shanghai to bolster his coalition against terrorism.

The Japanese, whose faltering economy remains a drag on the whole Pacific Rim, are apparently worried that the campaign against the Taliban will prove a costly distraction for forum participants. But the Chinese, I bet, are secretly thrilled at the prospect. Previous gatherings of this relatively new assembly -- the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group was founded in 1989 -- were memorable mostly for the goofy clothing leaders had to wear to show their appreciation of local customs. The Shanghai forum, in contrast, may well prove historic.

More important, the city is hosting an American President who has a lot on his mind, and who could sure use a lucky break in a vexing manhunt. If China is believed able to provide more help in getting that break than it has given so far, it may come out of the event with a sweet deal, one it does not deserve.

Does this sound harsh? If so, recall how China first reacted to the attacks on New York and Washington. Though senior leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, issued statements expressing outrage, other levels of the government sought almost immediately to step over the bodies to score some points. Specifically, when the United States sent out requests worldwide for intelligence on terrorist activities, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, aware that some experts were claiming links between Uighur separatists in northwest China and bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, decided it was an opportune moment to play a little realpolitik.

If America wanted China's help hunting down the genocidal murderers who killed as many as 6,000 people in the United States, the spokesman said, maybe they should show more support for the unpopular Chinese effort to get rid of its own "terrorists." He was referring, believe it or not, to the tiny, hopeless resistance movement inside Tibet, and to the modest agitations of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province, and was actually equating these groups with the al-Qaeda.

Happily, a preoccupied world community ignored the remark. It certainly ranks among the most inappropriate reactions to Sept.11, and would be laughable were it even remotely funny.

The trouble is, rumours persist that Uighur fighters have received training and funding from associates of bin Laden. That means Beijing may well possess information, or theoretically have access to information, about the al-Qaeda. In addition, China shares a border with Afghanistan, a potential—if unlikely -- point of entry for military operations.

Now there are reports the Bush administration has brought a deal to Shanghai. In exchange for closer Chinese co-operation in the war on terrorism, the United States will lift the sanctions it imposed on the nation after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. The sanctions include a ban on sales of military equipment, including spare parts for the Black Hawk helicopters the military bought from the U.S. in the 1980s.

What a deal this would be for China. Refuse to alter your behaviour and still have the sanctions imposed in response to that behaviour lifted. Use a tragedy for your own cynical ends and still be courted for your support. Wouldn't that make up for all the inconveniences of hosting an APEC forum?