Let's Get Real on China

May 24, 1993

Before the fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, President Clinton will have to redefine China policy in a way that reflects world realities and basic U.S. interests.

Year after year, liberal Democrats used the slaughter of democracy-minded students in Beijing as a bludgeon against George Bush for his refusal to deny China normal trading relations. Candidate Clinton himself joined in the exercise. But now it is time to put that bludgeon away and jettison domestic politics as a factor in dealing with the country that is bound to share superpower status with the United States in the 21st century.

While the Clinton White House reportedly is in a typical frenzy over this issue, it should not be. The president's course is clear enough. He can be sure such China-bashers as Sen. George Mitchell and Rep. Nancy Pelosi will salute and go along rather than embarrass their leader.

* First, Mr. Clinton should not revoke the so-called most favored nation (MFN) clause by which the U.S. conducts normal commerce with China. Elimination of MFN status would hurt U.S. grain farmers, aircraft manufacturers and a lot of other industries and services tapping into a booming mega-market destined to be another Japan in Asian rim commerce. It would also harm the go-go business elements in Chinese society, those that form the basis of a growing middle class that over time will doom authoritarian Communist traditions.

* Second, he should voice legitimate trade complaints about China's failure to live up to its agreements for opening its markets, respecting intellectual property rights, adhering to textile quotas and stopping the export of prison-made products. In doing so, he will focus on questions of real concern to the U.S. business community.

* Third, he should reiterate American complaints about human rights violations in China but not make reforms a condition that will store up trouble for him next year when MFN renewal again comes around. Political repression continues in China and the president should use his bully pulpit rather than MFN threats to oppose it.

* Fourth, he should decry China's flagrant disregard of international agreements to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and missiles. Its reported sales to Pakistan and certain rogue powers in the Middle East are unconscionable. China must be pushed or lured into more responsible conduct.

Through the use of presidential authority, Mr. Clinton can get Congress off the hook of trying to impose impossible conditions on China as it did during the Bush years, knowing a veto was coming. Mr. Clinton may have to show some muscle, preferably in the trade area only, but to show real leadership he should advise his party and the nation to engage China, not try to isolate it.

Americans need to abandon the illusion that China, now the world's third-ranking economic power, will jump in response to political byplay on Capitol Hill.

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