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Exporting Repression

Is it wrong to help authoritarian states repress their own citizens? Of course. But the question is rarely posed in Washington these days, which is what made last week’s hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs so notable.

In a brief exchange, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fiery Republican from Florida, questioned Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte about American exports of security-related articles and services to China for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Negroponte told her that the State Department is the lead agency in the American government for “supporting security for the Olympics,” and that there is a small task force in our embassy in Beijing working on this matter. He promised that in the future he would consult with the House committee, but said he knew nothing more about the issue.

Mr. Negroponte should have done his homework. For starters, legislation enacted in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre prohibits American companies from exporting crime-control or detection equipment to China. In other words, they cannot sell handcuffs, helmets, and shotguns. But the Commerce Department, which is supposed to enforce the sanctions, has gutted them by adopting a very narrow definition of security equipment. Police gear is out, but Oracle, Cisco, and Sybase are allowed to sell modern information technology that China needs to trace, track, and arrest drug dealers.

Representative Tom Lantos, the committee’s chairman, tried to draw a bright line between helping the Chinese prevent terrorist acts at the Olympic Games and contributing to the suppression of free speech by the Communist party. But that isn’t possible. If the U.S. helps Beijing track terrorists, it is also helping Beijing round up anyone else it pleases—not just drug dealers but dissidents and democracy activists too.

The U.S. does receive some benefit by cooperating on security matters with China. We win the right to screen American-bound containers on Chinese soil, get help in solving run-of-the-mill crimes, and obtain assistance in the global struggle against terrorists. Yet Beijing gets at least as much as it gives, especially in terms of help tracking down elements perceived as enemies by the regime.

The issues involved are complex, but Washington policymakers have not yet had honest conversations with the American people about the consequences of our assistance to China. As Representative Ros-Lehtinen suggests, the costs may end up being far too high.



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