China may slip by, keep its favored trade status

March 15, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- The tough talk during Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher's rocky human rights mission here clouded the emergence of a rough outline for resolving this year's struggle over renewal of China's favorable trade status with the United States.

The solution would not be very pretty. It would not thrill many of China's human rights critics.

But the modest Chinese steps on human rights announced yesterday as Mr. Christopher left Beijing could be interpreted as having moved China a lot closer under the specific language of last year's presidential order.

Absent a major blunder here involving human rights -- and such incidents are always possible -- what seems to be shaping up is a solution in which China barely squeaks by this year's test of its human rights record with a relatively meager collection of concessions and promises.

The government released two dissidents from detention yesterday and eased surveillance on several others. In Shanghai, dissidents Wang Fuchen and Yang Zhou were returned home just as Mr. Christopher left for Russia. There also may be releases later of ailing jailed activists.

The possible solution to this year's most-favored-nation (MFN) problem wouldn't mean a fundamental change in the Chinese system or even a reduction of the abuse of state power here. But it might give the Clinton administration enough to justify renewing it with something of a straight face.

For all the talk from both nations last weekend -- rhetoric largely aimed at each side's own domestic audiences -- neither the United States nor China wants to end MFN.

MFN allows Chinese imports to enter the United States at the lowest tariffs. Ending it would undermine more than $40 billion in two-way trade and cooperation on such key issues as weapons proliferation and the North Korean nuclear threat.

China's most ardent human rights critics don't admit it openly, but they also don't want to see the lucrative trade status revoked. They acknowledge that maintaining a high U.S. presence in China is one of the strongest factors inducing social and political changes here.

While conditions were attached to this year's MFN renewal to fulfill campaign pledges and congressional demands, administration officials have suggested openly that they'd like to get rid of the vexing linkage between trade and human rights.

Mr. Christopher, in talking with reporters Sunday night, said he could envision a "more generic" presidential order on MFN in the future -- one that would not require such specific steps by China as outlined in this year's order.

But even the modest moves taken by China as a result of Mr. Christopher's three-day visit here last weekend bring it a lot closer to meeting this year's more concrete standards.

By signing another, more detailed agreement on inspecting Chinese prisons that are exporting products to the United States and by agreeing to work on allowing certain dissidents or their relatives to leave for the United States, China already has come very close to fulfilling the only two mandatory conditions on the president's order.

As for the other five conditions, the order only requires China to show "overall significant progress." The administration could argue that China is on its way toward meeting many of these conditions.

The executive order requires China to show progress by:

* "Taking steps to begin adhering to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Mr. Christopher announced yesterday that China has "affirmed its support" for that United Nations declaration.

* "Ensuring humane treatment of prisoners, such as by allowing access to prisons by international humanitarian and human rights groups." Mr. Christopher announced that China will begin "expert-level talks" with the International Red Cross about this.

* "Protecting Tibet's distinctive religious and cultural heritage." Mr. Christopher urged China yesterday to engage in talks with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader. But China already argues with some credibility that it allows Tibetans to practice their religion -- albeit under tight political control.

* "Permitting international radio and television broadcasts into China." Mr. Christopher said China for the first time has agreed to "review information" on U.S. complaints that Voice of America broadcasts are regularly jammed here.

* "Releasing and providing an acceptable accounting for Chinese citizens imprisoned or detained for the nonviolent expression of their political and religious beliefs." China gave the United States a detailed accounting last weekend of the status of 235 people on a U.S. list who are believed to be prisoners. China also promised to provide similar information about 108 possible prisoners in Tibet.

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