One of the US' earliest unofficial cultural ambassadors to China after the Cultural Revolution was Big Bird, the enormous child-like Muppet character from Sesame Street. Big Bird traveled to China in 1979 to do a special with the late Bob Hope, before returning in 1983 to make a Sesame Street film called Big Bird in China.
Concepts such as intellectual property and quality control would be beyond Big Bird, but even this sweet, yellow-feathered friend would be upset to learn that Chinese factories have returned the favor by exporting Sesame Street toys containing dangerous levels of lead to countries all over the world.
It's a perfect juxtaposition: In the same week that Mattel pulled more than 1.5 million units of toys off the shelves, the US has offered would-be superpower China technical advice on how to export untainted food and drugs. Despite years of exponential growth, poor Beijing is apparently still struggling with the concept of export quality.
Meanwhile, stores in China are overflowing with fakes of another kind: Chinese-language rip-offs of the bestselling Harry Potter books. China should be grateful that author J.K. Rowling is British, otherwise the commotion that would result in the US Congress over yet another massive loss of revenue would require more than Harry's magic to contain.
Even so, the strength of the yuan and flagrant, unpunished intellectual copyright violations are putting pressure on members of Congress to demand retaliatory measures. With the Bush administration in general, and the US State Department in particular, however, it's nothing doing: Diplomacy is all.
The offer of technical assistance is sensible: Americans and their companies have a lot at stake when China neglects responsibilities on health and safety.
And yet it is striking how the US consistently prefers encouragement and dialogue over criticism and punitive measures when it comes to the flagrant disregard for basic standards in China, standards that the industrialized world takes for granted.
If only Taiwan consistently enjoyed such treatment from Washington.
With President Chen Shui-bian (
If the State Department were to do so, it would be a most unfortunate reflection of a monolithic view on Taiwanese affairs and Taiwanese people. It would also be a sad coda to the bridge-building trip to the US by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential nominee Frank Hsieh (
It is understandable, though not defensible, that the State Department would want to muzzle Chen, even if what he says about Taiwan and the UN is perfectly true. It is not understandable that the State Department would so pettily use stopover rights as punishment if Chen does not do its bidding.
There are other ways to place pressure on leaders. One is to treat ordinary Taiwanese with a greater degree of respect. An example of this would be to grant visa waivers for entry to the US to Taiwanese nationals, which a new law awaiting the signature of US President George W. Bush would allow.