Christopher ends China trip with few gains

March 14, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher -- already facing stiff resistance from China over improving its human rights record -- ran into a wall of criticism from American businessmen here yesterday.

The businessmen's sharp critique of U.S. policy is likely only to deepen Chinese resistance to U.S. linkage of trading privileges and rights abuses.

The stand-off between the United States and China is so deep that the two sides were not able to hold a joint news conference this morning, as had been hoped.

Mr. Christopher was leaving today with little directly to show for his journey. Shortly before his departure, he himself seemed to concede as much.

"I wouldn't describe it as a breakthrough," he said at a news conference after the three days of talks. "It was a businesslike and productive meeting. We began to narrow differences."

The friction between the two nations could lead to a multibillion-dollar trade war and the virtual breakdown of cooperation between the two countries on such key issues as weapons proliferation.

The United States did announce this morning that China has agreed to a more detailed memorandum on carrying out inspections of Chinese prisons suspected of exporting products to the United States.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen also announced this morning an agreement to form a joint commission on conversion of military industries to civilian production.

At an American Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting yesterday, the businessmen told Mr. Christopher that the annual U.S. debate on ending China's favorable trade status because of its human rights record has put U.S. businesses at a disadvantage in the world's largest and fastest-growing market.

William Warwick, chairman of AT&T, said U.S. companies are constantly reminded by their Chinese partners that the annual fear of U.S. cancellation of China's most-favored-nation trade status "raises serious questions about the credibility of our commitment to China for long-term commercial relationships, relationships that the Chinese can count on."

In calling for the unconditional renewal of MFN before it expires in July, the businessmen said China is making progress on civil liberties -- progress partly promoted by the growing presence of U.S. companies here.

"The continuation of MFN will positively affect the social and democratic reforms currently under way here in China," said Phillip S. Carmichael, president of the chamber's Beijing chapter.

If MFN is revoked, he said, "U.S. business will pull back from its investments here in China. . . . China will continue to grow . . . but the U.S. will not be involved.

"How would this disengagement help to influence and change China's path?" Mr. Carmichael asked. "How would our noninvolvement advance the stated goal of bettering the human rights policies of China?"

Mr. Christopher, saying he was not surprised by the businessmen's views, defended the U.S. demands on human rights as "reasonable, narrow and clear." He also noted that they are backed "overwhelmingly" by the U.S. Congress.

But after his first day here -- a day in which he was sharply upbraided by Chinese leaders -- the businessmen's views seemed to add insult to injury. They also surely heartened Chinese officials, who appear to believe the United States has painted itself into a diplomatic corner.

"We are not asking for a radical transformation of the Chinese system," Mr. Christopher has said during his trip. But Chinese President Jiang Zemin responded to him yesterday as though that is precisely what Washington has in mind.

"There are some people in the world who don't really care about the rights, interests and welfare of the vast majority of the Chinese people," Mr. Jiang said, according to spokesman Wu Jianmin. "They only show concern about a small group of people who attempt to undermine the Chinese government.

"The questions in regard to this small number of people are political and legal questions, not questions of human rights," Mr. Jiang said, according to the spokesman.

To drive home the U.S. point that China must further develop its legal system, Mr. Christopher met over lunch yesterday at the U.S. Embassy with five Chinese lawyers, two in private practice and three academics.

Mr. Christopher said they discussed Chinese legal reforms, such as moves to provide defendants with legal counsel in a timely way and to allow citizens the right to sue the government.

But last night, one of the lawyers at the meeting, Ying Songnian, 57, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, described the one-hour meeting as just "light and easy" talk.

"I think the [Chinese] legal system has been improving a lot these two years," Mr. Ying said. "I think in a few years we'll have a much more efficient legal system."

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