China Business, China Rights: End the Hypocrisy

April 17, 1994|By WARREN I. COHEN

For several weeks surrounding Warren M. Christopher's visit to Beijing, the issue of whether the United States should continue to grant China most-favored-nation trade treatment has made front and op-ed pages.

The annual brouhaha has begun. Should trade with China be treated as the United States treats the trade of almost every other country in the world, or should the Chinese be singled out for higher tariffs because of their disappointing record on human rights?

By June 4, President Clinton must tell Congress that China has made significant progress on human rights or Congress will deny China most-favored-nation treatment.

Inside the Washington Beltway, the smart money is betting that the president will find progress, trade will continue as before -- and the Chinese will continue to imprison and torture dissidents.

The Chinese are so confident that they abused Mr. Christopher when he visited. They have left no doubt that they will continue to define human rights as they please -- human rights with a Chinese face?

If the United States withholds MFN, the Chinese will buy their airplanes from Airbus instead of Boeing, turn to French or German or Japanese companies for their telephones, electrical systems, oil development, etc.

Major American corporations are lobbying frantically to hang on to that long-imagined China market -- 1.2 billion people in the world's fastest growing economy. China, they tell us, has become an economic giant, critical to the American economy in the 21st century.

And the president surely doesn't want to risk more layoffs at Boeing or General Electric or AT&T. With huge profits envisioned, major U.S. corporations can hardly be expected to allow the suffering of a few Chinese intellectuals to get in the way.

Interestingly enough, most independent specialists on Chinese-American relations agree that it would be a mistake to end MFN, that it would hurt the sector of the Chinese economy we most want to strengthen -- the private sector. They stress the importance of good relations with China for dealing with a host of international issues, most notably the North Korean bomb scare.

We also hear a great deal from business lobbyists and some experts on China that political reform -- democracy in China -- will follow inevitably from economic development.

Echoing Karl Marx, they tell us that economics determines politics. We are assured that as China's economy booms, wealthy businessmen will demand more political power, ultimately wresting control from the Communist Party.

Surely it is time to put an end to the hypocrisy, to separate economicissues from human rights and other ideological issues.

If American businessmen want to trade with China, and the president's economic and security advisers tell him that trade with China will strengthen the United States, then let's trade.

But please don't feed us any more nonsense about how the Chinese have improved their human rights practice when they release two more dissidents on the eve of the renewal of MFN. Please don't ask us to accept economic determinist arguments about how trade will lead to democracy.

If trade with China is in our interest, then let's just do it. Do it for the money on the time-honored basis of mutual benefit. Reserve sanctions such as the withdrawal of MFN for commercial transgressions like restrictive trade practices, prison labor, export frauds -- the usual kinds of commercial complaints.

It's time to put the human rights issue on a separate agenda. Instead of pretending that the Chinese have made great progress in order to prettify an economically defensible decision, President Clinton should explain the economic reasons for extending MFN. Instead of debasing our commitment to universal standards of human rights,the president should explain that Chinese political leaders are contemptuous of those standards,that China will not for the foreseeable future share American values.

Relations with China will not soon be like those we enjoy with countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel or Japan. On the other hand,some of us are old enough to remember when the political cultures of Germany and Japan were hostile. Nor was it very long ago that we assumed perpetual conflict with the Soviet Union.

Until China changes, if it changes, it should not be treated as a friendly country. We should cooperate with China as we did with the Soviets during World War II when we needed their help to destroy Hitler's Germany. There will be times when working with China will be in the interest of the American people,and we must keep the door open for those occasions.

Let the relationship be businesslike. But please, no more hypocrisy over China's progress in human rights. And please don't ask us to believe that we're selling airliners to China to

hasten the coming of democracy to Tiananmen Square.

Warren Cohen, professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the author of several books on diplomatic history, including "America's Response to China."

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