China Policy in Question

March 12, 1994

Secretary of State Warren Christopher finds himself in an awkward position this weekend as he arrives in China in the midst of a provocative roundup of liberal dissidents. If the Li Peng regime intended to create a scenario disruptive to Sino-American relations and cunningly designed to defy human rights standards, it has succeeded.

The world now is treated to the spectacle of the top U.S. diplomat trying to lend credence to threats of jettisoning normal trading arrangements with China when, in fact, the Clinton administration wishes the whole issue would go away.

Prodded by congressional moralists, President Clinton will have to cast judgment this June on whether Beijing's human rights record warrants extension of most-favored-nation (MFN) trading ties with China. This is not a chore the president gladly assumed. He did so last year only to stop Congress from blundering into precipitous action.

Since then, the administration has tendered all sorts of inducements to China to encourage more benign behavior. It has opened contacts between the U.S. and Chinese military establishments. It has permitted the sale of communications satellite equipment. It has worked quietly with China to defuse the North Korean nuclear threat.

And all to no avail. Beijing economists have latched onto studies indicating that China might lose only one-fifth of its $25 billion export trade to the United States if Washington raises tariffs to non-MFN levels. The regime scheduled a Communist Party congress to coincide with the Christopher visit though such congresses are an occasion for agitation by the democratic opposition.

One gets the impression that China is determined not to blink, figures the United States will do so and is prepared to live with the consequences if this is a miscalculation. If true, the balance of pressure may weigh more heavily on Washington than on Beijing. Why so? Because Li Peng's regime may think that the Clinton administration cannot afford to lose the 100,000 jobs tied up in U.S. exports to China and that it needs Beijing's cooperation on the East Asian scene and in world diplomacy.

With China's economy booming, its coastal regions defying Beijing, its intellectuals in ferment and its military restive, the Beijing leaders are preoccupied with the need to maintain stability. And so, they seem prepared to impose political authority, regardless of Western sensibilities, at the same time that economic reformism runs rampant.

Secretary Christopher is duty-bound to express American outrage over the jailing of political prisoners and the suppression of speech. But he should also find a graceful retreat from the threat to impose trade sanctions, perhaps by proposing a bilateral commission to deal with human rights as a separate matter. This may not be a heroic approach. But the U.S. should take care not to foster developments that could encourage upheaval in China. In time, free market economics will produce freedom. China obviously needs more time.

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