Rancor marks U.S.-Chinese talks on rights

March 13, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's first meetings here yesterday were marked by biting rebuke rather than progress on the festering Sino-American dispute over human rights.

In the morning, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen accused a senior U.S. official of interfering in China's internal affairs, being disrespectful and breaking Chinese law -- all by meeting two weeks ago with China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng.

Mr. Qian said the meeting had "deeply disappointed" Chinese leaders and "cast a shadow" over Mr. Christopher's visit, according to Wu Jianmin, the Chinese spokesman.

"When U.S. visitors come to China, they should show respect for their hosts and they should abide by Chinese laws," Mr. Wu said.

"We have a saying that courtesy demands reciprocity."

The Clinton administration had hoped that Mr. Christopher's three-day visit would cap a six-month effort to improve relations with China. But the tense reception given the envoy on his first visit to Beijing as secretary of state further threatened China's chances of winning renewal of lucrative trade privileges that expire in June.

The United States says China must show sufficient progress on human rights to secure renewal of its most-favored-nation trade status.

U.S. officials retorted that the harassment of dissidents here and in Shanghai after the meeting between Assistant U.S. Secretary of State John Shattuck and Mr. Wei is the true source of the new tensions underlying the human rights talks.

"To say that we're casting shadows is really an extraordinary leap of chutzpah," said Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

"This is the first day out of three," said Mr. Lord, a former ambassador to China. "Let's hope the next couple of days are better."

State Department spokesman Michael McCurry quoted Mr. Christopher as saying, "The events suggest that China attaches little weight to core human rights issues."

Even a reportedly splendid lunch served to Mr. Qian and Mr. Christopher provided fodder for a barb: "I wish the meeting had been as good as the lunch," the secretary of state is said to have told his host when they said goodbye.

Mr. Wei, a pro-democracy activist released last fall after 14 1/2 years in jail, has left Beijing for the time being, along with several other prominent dissidents. He is among about 16 activists here and in Shanghai who have been detained over the last week; all but three are believed to have been released.

In addition, four reporters, including two Americans, have been briefly detained here over the last two days while trying to contact dissidents. Mr. Christopher called the two U.S. reporters, Nick Driver of United Press International and Matt Forney of Newsweek, yesterday after they had been released.

Security remained tight here yesterday, with police deployed outside the homes of outspoken dissidents and two U.S. Embassy compounds.

Asked to explain China's ire over Mr. Wei's meeting with the U.S. envoy, Mr. Wu would say only that the dissident is "a criminal on parole."

But even a U.S. diplomat here, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the meeting as "a mistake" yesterday.

Mr. Shattuck was in town to prepare for Mr. Christopher's trip, and his meeting with Mr. Wei took place before he even had met any officials here.

"It's as if a Russian assistant foreign minister had come to the U.S. in the 1960s to prepare for a state visit and had first met -- before anyone else -- [former Black Panther leader] Eldridge Cleaver," the U.S. diplomat said.

However, Mr. Lord defended the meeting as an opportunity for China to demonstrate progress on human rights by allowing Mr. Wei to exercise his free speech. "That's what's sad about this," he said.

Mr. Lord also stressed that it is "very basic to the work of U.S. diplomats abroad to be able to meet freely with foreign citizens" and the U.S. won't accept restrictions on such meetings.

The dispute raises the possibility of a multibillion-dollar trade war if the U.S. revokes China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for not showing "overall significant progress" on human rights.

The U.S. market takes a third of all Chinese exports and is worth millions of jobs here.

Chinese markets support about 200,000 manufacturing jobs in the United States. U.S. officials yesterday tried to convey an air of urgency about the impending June deadline for their MFN decision as well as the larger benefits for China of better relations with the U.S.

But Mr. Christopher is encountering an emboldened Chinese leadership that refuses to accept pressure from Washington and that may believe the United States has no choice but to renew MFN.

As a high-ranking Chinese official recently put it: "The Americans have got themselves in a box. Now it's up to them to get themselves out of it."

Chinese Premier Li Peng seemed to exhibit much the same defiance in talking with Mr. Christopher, according to Mr. Wu, the Chinese spokesman.

"China will never accept the United States' human rights concepts," the Chinese premier said. "If MFN is revoked . . . the U.S. will suffer no less than China."

The United States has a trade deficit with China of more than $20 billion, second in the world only to the deficit with Japan. If MFN is canceled and China retaliates, it could imperil lucrative U.S. orders from China.

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