Saving Face on China

March 15, 1994

Secretary of State Warren Christopher's botched visit to China is a textbook example of bad policy badly executed. If President Clinton learns anything from this sorry affair, he will jettison the flawed idea of linking Sino-American trade relations to China's record on human rights. The cause of seeking better treatment for Chinese dissidents is ill-served if the means of expressing American disapproval is based on accidental circumstances that reflect domestic U.S. politics rather than Chinese realities.

The origins of the present policy go back to the Cold War. In 1974, because of the Soviet refusal to allow Jews to emigrate, Congress adopted the Jackson-Vanik Amendment denying so-called most-favored-nation (MFN) trade treatment to Communist nations that infringe human rights. The statute was never applied to China during the 1980s as Sino-American relations flourished.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre, however, Democrats in Congress seized upon the MFN lever to lambaste President Bush's attempts to preserve trade ties of benefit to both countries. Candidate Clinton in 1992 accused Mr. Bush of "coddling dictators" and vowed he would get tough. The result? He is stuck with a policy his own economic experts deplore and his diplomats seek to soften to the point of meaninglessness.

It is also stupid policy, as underscored by Mr. Christopher's own State Department. Its latest human rights report declared: "A zTC decade of rapid economic growth, spurred by market incentives and foreign investment, has reduced party and government control over the economy and permitted ever larger numbers of Chinese to have more control over their lives and livelihood." [Italics ours.]

This, then, was the context in which Mr. Christopher went to Beijing even as hardliners in the regime were rounding up dissidents in protest. The secretary should have taken the hint and stayed away. Instead, over the past weekend, he was lectured by Chinese leaders who resent outside interference in their internal affairs and were told by American businessmen in Beijing that the whole MFN linkage is "ill-conceived."

Indeed it is, and therein lies a problem: How can this country achieve the Asian objective of saving face? Mr. Christopher's method was to send signals that if only the Chinese regime will behave one more time, the administration would junk the connection between trade and human rights and judge the latter on more "generic" criteria. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown chimed in by reminding Americans that if the supply of cheap Chinese products is curtailed, prices will go up here at home. What a demeaning spectacle.

By mid-year, the president either has to make good on his rhetoric at the expense of U.S. economic and international well-being, or he has to find a less-than-humiliating accommodation that serves both U.S. and Chinese interests. We suspect the latter route -- the right route -- will be chosen.

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