Rights squabble dims hopes for China mission

March 09, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- This weekend's visit by U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was to be a glowing opportunity for China to ensure renewal of its lucrative U.S. trade status by giving the Clinton administration a measure of political face on human rights concerns.

But the glow has dimmed with the roundup of some dissidents here. Mr. Christopher is snarling about it, and the Chinese are snarling back.

It's "hard to overstate the strong distaste we all feel for the recent detentions and hostile measures taken by the Chinese," Mr. Christopher said yesterday in Canberra, Australia.

China's Foreign Ministry quickly snapped back: "No foreign country, organization or individual has the right to make irresponsible remarks or interfere" in matters within China.

The exchange was prompted by the detentions of about a dozen dissidents here last weekend, moves reflecting China's intent on keeping tight control as Mr. Christopher arrives Friday and the annual meeting of its legislature opens tomorrow.

The foreign criticism did not deter Chinese police last night from detaining Wang Dan, the formerly jailed Tiananmen Square protest leader. Mr. Wang was released later with a strong warning to keep quiet.

But even before these detentions, U.S. businessmen and Western diplomats here had begun to doubt that China will take the minimum steps to avert a mutually costly collision over the annual renewal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade standing.

"We're more nervous this year than we've ever been about the chances of MFN being renewed," Phillip S. Carmichael, head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, said yesterday. "You can never underestimate the Chinese ability to shoot themselves in the foot."

Adds a Western diplomat: "The U.S. wants to renew MFN, and it will struggle mightily to do that. But you have to wonder if China is willing to do anything. The Chinese may have concluded they shouldn't do anything -- either because they think nothing will satisfy the U.S. or because they think the U.S. itself can't afford to end MFN."

During a visit last week by U.S. human rights envoy John Shattuck, China was informed of steps it could take during Mr. Christopher's visit to meet the U.S. criterion for renewing MFN this year: "overall significant progress" on human rights.

These measures include granting passports to relatives of Chinese dissidents living abroad, releasing some ailing dissidents from jail on medical paroles and moving more firmly to allow the International Red Cross to inspect Chinese prisons.

U.S. officials have said that if China's most-favored-nation status is renewed this year, the United States might change its MFN debate so that the two nations' growing economic ties are not tied to rights concerns.

"The Chinese know exactly what it would take to make MFN go away," the Western diplomat said. "It isn't very much, and it certainly isn't anything that threatens their internal security."

But China seems more interested in its own political agenda -- of standing up to the United States -- than in fulfilling the Clinton administration's agenda of standing up for human rights around the world.

The result is a game of diplomatic brinkmanship, one that could persist until the June deadline for renewing MFN and that could be very damaging for both nations.

At stake for China are one-third of its exports and millions of jobs in industries that are driving the economic boom that is helping the Communist Party maintain power.

MFN allowed $32 billion in Chinese exports -- shoes, electronics, toys, clothes, leather -- into the United States last year under the lowest tariffs. Without it, duties on many Chinese products would be increased three or four times, and the prices on the goods wouldn't be competitive.

But the United States also has much at stake. A million U.S. jobs depend on exports to China, Mr. Carmichael said -- 200,000 manufacturing jobs, largely in aviation, telecommunications and high-tech industries, with each creating three or four service-industry jobs.

Directly affected in the United States are aircraft workers in Seattle, wheat farmers in the Midwest and discount-store shoppers everywhere -- American voters that Mr. Clinton wants to keep happy.

Emboldened by the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and its growing importance to the world, many Chinese may believe, as a Foreign Ministry official recently told a U.S. diplomat: "President Clinton can't afford to end MFN. If he does, he won't get re-elected."

For this view, the U.S. only has itself to blame.

Eager to gain sales in China, U.S. corporate executives regularly appear on national television here shaking hands warmly with Chinese leaders -- with Merrill Lynch officers and Chinese Premier Li Peng being the latest example this week.

When Mr. Shattuck was here on a human rights mission last week, a top U.S. trade official also was in Beijing stressing the importance of the China market for the United States.

The United States resumed military cooperation with China last fall, and a senior Pentagon official will be here with Mr. Christopher to hold his own talks.

And this week, the United States said that it may lift its ban on issuing export licenses for three communications satellites to be launched by Chinese rockets -- a ban imposed in retaliation for Chinese missile technology sales to Pakistan.

"The problem," Mr. Carmichael said, "is that the Clinton policy of engaging China on many issues is, unfortunately, sending China contradictory signals."

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