Commentary: Time for escalation on China?

When Chinese pilot Wang Wei bought the collective farm after his collision with the American EP-3E spy plane, who could have imagined the trouble it would have cyberspace?

COMMENTARY--When Chinese pilot Wang Wei bought the collective farm after his collision with the American EP-3E spy plane, who could have imagined the trouble it would have caused?

Now patriotic Chinese and American hackers are attacking foreign Web sites. And American lawmakers are pondering hacking China's continued most-favored-nation trading status.

Can't we all just get along--and remember that this was an accident in the cat-and-mouse game of intelligence-gathering spooks?

True enough, the military was involved, having been drafted into this game. But it was, after all, an accident, brought on more by the personal failings of one man who liked to buzz around other airplanes--the Chinese version of "Maverick" in Top Gun. If it wasn't for him, I doubt Chinese hackers would even be making much of the Americans' mistaken bombing of a Chinese embassy a couple of years ago. Are we going to make a mockery of the Internet and high-tech trade all as a result of one man?

I think it's time for cooler heads to prevail. At least on the diplomatic and economic front. There seems to be nothing to stop the genetic predisposition for vigilantism on the Net. But hopefully that will die down too, if the media doesn't make such a big deal out of it. It really is, as one observer noted, the response of immature children.

But undoubtedly some of the opponents of free trade with China will seize on the hacking and other incidents to derail the upcoming renewal of most-favored-nation trading status. That would be a big mistake.

As my colleague Juliana Gruenwald reports, American high-tech interests see China as a vital market, ripe for growth at a time when the rest of the tech economy is in the dumps.

That's not just good for American high-tech business. It's good for our national security interests in the long run and good for the people of China also.

Let's face it, we all know that China is a disgraceful nation, run by a cabal of communist gerontocrats who care nothing for their people. And, on first glance, adding wealth to a national economy through trade seems to provide resources for dictators.

However, as we've seen in Cuba, Iraq and North Korea, restrictions on trade give the ruling class more grist for demagoguery and consolidation of power, and only people hurt are those outside the ruling class who most need the fruits of a free economy. Better we take a chance on helping these people.

What's more, I've never bought the argument that the way to defend human rights around the world is to suppress the human rights of people to trade with each other. What kind of message does that send about trade and property rights, other than that these are allowed only because the government says so?

Trade can improve the lives of impoverished nations by opening new markets, bringing in new capital for investments, and solidifying the crucial legal structures pertaining to property and security. That last point is very important. Trade makes nationalistic, childish nations start to act, legally anyway, like adults.

And Lord knows the Chinese need it. Not only are communist party hacks attempting to suppress dissent and control content on the Internet, they are also hoarding the high-tech riches for themselves, by controlling all of the best ventures under "public-private" partnerships, and drowning the rest of their potential private-sector competitors in a sea of vague, shifting regulations.

Forget hacking Chinese Web sites. It's time to send in the shock troops of free trade, from World Trade Organization officials extracting concessions on law, to hungry American tech entrepreneurs just champing at the bit to build out the communications infrastructure, and unleash the pent-up demand and creativity of the Chinese people. They are the only hope to free the Chinese people from an ongoing economic stranglehold.

I'm excitedly waiting for the day the Chinese Wall falls from around the Internet, the way the Berlin Wall eventually fell, and the Soviet flag came down from the Kremlin one Christmas day. The Chinese kleptocrats may be using every last trick they can to slow down that day's arrival, including building up national fervor over a hotshot pilot. We shouldn't fall for their game, but rather, keep our eyes on the bigger rewards.