BEIJING -- As part of a continuing American effort to pressure China on its human rights abuses, two U.S. congressmen said yesterday they warned Chinese Premier Li Peng that Congress is likely to link China's favorable trading status to improved treatment of Chinese political and religious dissidents.
In an hourlong meeting with Mr. Li yesterday afternoon, the two U.S. representatives said they gave him a petition signed by 110 members of Congress, asking him to set free 77 Chinese who have been imprisoned, detained or put under house arrest for their religious activities.
They said they also asked for a review of the cases of hundreds jailed for their roles in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and for China to end alleged coercive practices in its family-planning programs.
Representatives Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., and Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., said they stopped short of directly threatening Mr. Li with an end to China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status, under which its exports to the United States benefit from the same low tariffs as those of most other nations. But they said they directly linked the rights issue with Sino-American trade relations.
"We stressed . . . that respect for fundamental human rights is the cornerstone -- is absolutely central -- to improved U.S.- [China] relations," Mr. Smith said. "U.S. concern over Soviet hegemony -- the China card -- has been replaced with human rights. Mutual economic cooperation in the '90s will be enhanced by adherence to or harmed by negligence [of] internationally recognized human rights standards."
The congressmen said Mr. Li characterized the U.S. position as a "carrot and stick" approach and reiterated China's long-standing position that such internal matters as the treatment of dissidents are not the affair of other nations. But they said that Mr. Li agreed to pass on their comments to China's judiciary.
The two congressmen are the latest U.S. officials to deliver a roughly similar message.
In December, an assistant U.S. secretary of state asked Chinese officials for detailed information about 150 imprisoned dissidents. Last fall another group of lawmakers also lectured Mr. Li on the link between human rights and trade.
Other than the claim that China is now engaged for the first time in a human rights dialogue, none of these visits has produced visible signs of progress. So far this year, China has sentenced about three dozen 1989 protesters to jail terms as long as 13 years, and hundreds, if not thousands, of other Tiananmen demonstrators still remain imprisoned without trials.
Time ran out on a congressional move last June to block the Bush administration's recommendation to renew China's MFN status, but the issue has only gathered steam since then -- in part because of continued human rights concerns and in part because of China's rapidly growing trade surplus with the United States.
Some analysts argue, however,that China's growing dependence on the U.S. market for its goods gives U.S. officials new political leverage on human rights and that ending its most-favored-nation status thus would not produce the desired impact on human rights.
In any case, when the annual MFN renewal comes up this June, most observers believe that Congress is not likely to muster enough votes to override a favorable Bush administration recommendation.
China's leadership generally appears confident of this as well. Nevertheless, Mr. Li, in a report to China's legislature Monday, specifically noted the possibility that the United States could take away that status. He warned that this would harm not only Sino-American relations but also "stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the whole world."