Exporting US values to China won't be that easy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2001, 12:00am

WHENEVER THERE IS any sort of dip in Sino-US relations and mainstream politicians from both the Republican and Democrat parties justify continued ties with Beijing, there is inevitably a lot of earnest talk of 'exporting American values' through business and trade.

President George W. Bush has said it. So has his predecessor, former president Bill Clinton and former vice-president Al Gore, among others. The sweeping mantra links American commercialism with free markets and the march to democracy and human rights. In a single sound-bite, the leap is made from the trade in hamburgers and tractors to America's highest motives.

Pugnacious Republican congressional whip Tom DeLay linked it directly to religious freedom and the promotion of Christianity as he risked annoying his fellow right-wingers to support then president Clinton's push for permanent trade rights for China. 'I am excited about exporting American values,' he said.

While ideologues like Mr DeLay may actually believe their own rhetoric, many insiders in the political swirl of Washington are more cynical. 'It is posturing and positioning, the covering of rhetorical bases,' one veteran Republican lobbyist said. 'There is so much that is said in this town because people feel they have to say it.'

Consider China's position, and it all seems even more glib, if not absurd. It is difficult to imagine that the many minds lining Beijing's corridors of power are eyeing greater economic integration because it will promote Tom DeLay's version of Christianity.

The theory - famously touted more than a decade ago by conservative humourist PJ O'Rourke when he declared that blue jeans had brought down the Berlin Wall - has a distinctly modern post-Cold War ring. The ideological battles of old have shifted, as we all know. Now you can get rich and get even at the same time.

As universal as it seems to have become, there are still anomalies. Consider Marxist Cuba, still labouring under a US economic embargo imposed after Fidel Castro's surge to power in 1959. America has adopted a bipartisan approach to keeping the embargo largely intact in recent years, even as it hails the miracle of consumerism elsewhere. The unspoken policy suggests it will remain until Dr Castro dies. His rule has survived through 10 US presidencies, but there is a good chance George W. Bush might be one of his last. What Dr Castro may realise better than most is that there is nothing really new to the mantra of Mr DeLay and co. In fact, the old Havana Hilton is proof of consumerism as a bulwark against communism.

New research by Jane Wharton, an art history professor at Duke University in the US details the extent to which the late hotel tsar Conrad Hilton saw a victory for capitalism in terms of the ability to sit in a hot tub and dial up a cheeseburger.

Her new study Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture is getting considerable attention. She suggests that in the years after World War II, the US Government was keen to push Hilton's version of Americana as a peculiar form of propaganda. It was barely accidental that his hotels represented the opulence of American 1950s suburbia - iced water, tennis courts and giant bathrooms - rather than local tastes.

As he sought to create his monuments in cities such as Rome, Athens and Istanbul - all cities with active communist movements at the time - the US chipped in funding through the Marshall Plan.

'Each of our hotels is a little America,' Hilton once said. 'We build them to show the countries most exposed to communism the other side of the coin.' When the Hilton Hotel opened in west Berlin in the late 1950s, he declared: 'We have hit upon a new weapon with which to fight communism.'

His architectural ideas flowed through to the State Department, which launched extensive redevelopment efforts at its sites in foreign capitals, designed to better represent the American Way. Hilton was not merely eyeing business opportunities, Ms Wharton suggests, but he actually believed in what he was saying. Now, however, Hilton is under British ownership and little different from other chains, constantly tailoring itself to current fashions, tastes and genres.

Keep an ear to the ground in Washington, however, and you find his rhetoric is still alive and well, it seems.

Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent