Reprinted from the Washington Post, March 23, 2001

The mechanism of American human rights policy toward China generally works like this. The Chinese government tortures people. It tortures people who try to organize democratic parties, who practice Buddhism or Catholicism, or who engage in certain kinds of breathing exercises. It ties them up by their arms or upside down by their ankles and beats them with wooden poles. It listens to them howl, watches them bleed and keeps on beating them. Sometimes it beats them to death.

The U.S. government keeps records. It jots down on pieces of paper all the instances of Chinese torture. It then prepares annual reports that measure China's progress. Some years the news is good: fewer Chinese people hung from the ceiling and beaten. Most years the news is not good: more Chinese people hung from the ceiling and beaten. Every few months, the U.S. government talks to the Chinese government about this for a few minutes. The U.S. government "raises" the "issue" of human rights. Then it goes back to keeping records.

This is how the system of U.S.-China relations operates, and after more than a decade of mechanical repetition -- China tortures, the United States records and then "raises" the "issue" -- it operates pretty much on autopilot. Or it has until now. This time one of the victims is an American citizen.

The Chinese government, we learned this week, tortured a 5-year-old American child for 26 days. No, the Chinese government did not hang him upside down and beat him. But as any parent of a 5-year-old child knows, what they did do to Andrew Xue was horrifying and merciless torture just the same. They took him away from his parents. They told him nothing about where his parents were, what had happened to them, or whether he would ever see them again.

It is hard to imagine the horror and desolation this 5-year-old child must have felt during even the first hour of this ordeal. It is almost too awful to contemplate the agony Andrew suffered over the remaining 623 hours of his captivity. And of course this torture, like all tortures, had a purpose. Andrew's suffering was meant to force a confession. The Chinese government had arrested his mother, a Chinese scholar at American University named Gao Zhan, on charges of espionage.

An expert on women's issues, Gao once wrote that women in Taiwan participate more actively in politics than women in China. Making this point is a criminal offense in China. The Chinese government, therefore, wanted Andrew's father, Xue Donghua, to help incriminate her. The Chinese government tortured Andrew for 26 days to get information from his father and a "confession" out of his mother.

Now, as it happens, Andrew, unlike his parents, is an American citizen. So how has the U.S. government responded to the Chinese government's abduction and torture of an American citizen? Yesterday Secretary of State Colin Powell appropriately expressed his outrage. He's waiting for an explanation. On Wednesday State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that "if a child was detained for 20 days without access to his parents, without the benefit of consular notification, that would be a real problem for us."

How much of a problem remains to be seen, however. Powell has "raised" the "issue" with Vice Premier Qian Qichen and so has President Bush. And no doubt the whole event will be jotted down in the State Department log, although next year they will have to add to their annual record-keeping a new category: tortures of American citizens. But after the outrage subsides will American policy be any different?

And what of Gao's colleagues in the scholarly world? Well, there is a mechanism that grinds away there, too. In the United States there is a community of China experts. Many go to China to study the development of the "rule of law." They come back with statistics showing that the "rule of law" is gradually taking hold in China. They think this is a potent rebuttal to charges that China is a barbaric police state.

They argue, carefully, that it's a mistake to pay too much attention to a few hundred people hanging from ceilings. They suggest, cautiously, that a 5-year-old American boy crying himself to sleep in a Chinese jail for 26 days should not be allowed to poison the U.S.-China relationship. Then they get ready for their next trip to China -- but plan on leaving their children at home.