Horse trading with Hillary

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 August, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 August, 1995, 12:00am

HARRY Wu is an interesting character. His willingness to put his head in the lion's mouth, after already being badly mauled once, commands respect. His concern for those imprisoned in China commands sympathy.

On television, he comes across as an amiable and unpretentious individual propelled by a strong sense of idealism.

His latest pronouncements, though, seem to be taking this last trait a bit far.

There are, no doubt, good arguments to be made both for and against Hillary Clinton going to the UN Women's Conference in Beijing.

Those in favour can say it is a United Nations event, not a Chinese one, and Mrs Clinton's presence will enable her to say some things which need saying.

Those against can claim that any foreign visit to Beijing brings aid and comfort to the regime, and whatever Mrs Clinton says will not be reported in China anyway.

Mr Wu, however, deployed a new variation, arguing that Mrs Clinton should not go because he did not believe that China should be 'rewarded' for releasing him.

This is not very realistic.

I do not seek to diminish the risks which Mr Wu ran in returning to China - after all he might have been summarily shot - but the fact remains that in one respect he was a cut above your average local dissident.

Mr Wu is an American citizen. Nothing wrong with that, but Mr Wu must have known perfectly well when he left that if he got into serious trouble, then Uncle Sam would exert himself on behalf of a beleaguered citizen.

To this extent, Mr Wu's trapeze artistry featured a safety net.

Now if he had been arrested in, say, France, the help from his adopted homeland would not have amounted to much: an occasional consular visit, help in arranging a lawyer, some message passing . . .

But this is not how things work in China. Mr Wu did not get consular visits, it appears. Having a lawyer arranged for you in China is not much help anyway - he only advises you to plead guilty.

What happened in Mr Wu's case, entirely predictably, was that the whole matter swiftly passed from the realm of local consuls to the realm of international diplomacy.

This is an inevitable consequence of the way things are done in China. The only way to help citizens in trouble with what passes for the law is through government-to-government contacts. So we have to imagine two officials - one from each side - meeting over a glass of diplomatic orange juice and discussing the prospects for a visit by Mrs Clinton.

At some point in the proceedings the American observes that it would be very difficult for Mrs Clinton to turn up at the UN gabfest if Mr Wu is still enjoying the hospitality of the Wuhan Public Security Bureau.

Hey Presto! Mr Wu is sprung. Let us briefly salute the cheek of the gentleman in Wuhan who turned up on local television screens bravely insisting that the decision on this matter had 'nothing to do with international politics'.

The point of all this is that Mr Wu may believe (and may be right in believing) that he should have been released anyway.

But that is hardly the way the situation appears in Beijing. To extricate him from his cell, the US had to offer something in return.

Americans have become wary of offering substantive rewards for the release of particular dissidents, because China has an inexhaustible and constantly replenished supply of jailed dissidents.

But this is a better deal because Mrs Clinton no doubt wished to go to Beijing anyway.

And whether she goes or not, the effects will be temporary.

Now it may be very galling for Mr Wu to be the subject of this sort of international horse trading, but that is the way international relations work.

The alternative to Mrs Clinton going to Beijing was him doing his 15 years as originally sentenced.

I suppose Mr Wu may also feel that his original intention of highlighting conditions in China's prisons has been to some extent frustrated by the international media circus, and the presentation of his protest as a problem in US-China relations rather than in China's domestic policy.

But there you are. One of the things you get with an American passport is the American press.