China woos corporate America with economic boom while crushing dissent

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

BEIJING -- The release from prison here yesterday of leading dissident Chen Ziming was just another incremental step in the Chinese leadership's yearlong quest to flip the Clinton administration's human-rights challenge to China back onto the president.

The overall human rights picture has not significantly improved herein the last year, as Mr. Clinton demanded in his executive order almost a year ago. In some ways, it has become worse. Such moves as Mr. Chen's release, though welcomed, can only be viewed as a most cynical form of hostage politics played by masters at that game.

But as the president this month weighs whether to revoke China'smost-favored-nation (MFN) trade status with the United States, the focus already has shifted from China's human rights abuses to how Mr. Clinton will manage to back down from the threat of total MFN withdrawal with a straight face.

China brilliantly turned the U.S. challenge on its head with a double-pronged strategy: aggressively winning over to its side the American business community while quietly taking a few steps to fulfill the specific language of the seven demands outlined in the president's executive order.

The wooing of corporate America by China has been both brazen and, given the lure of money-making opportunities here these days, easy.

Business leads the way

Just last week, the Chinese leadership turned up for China's first international corporate summit meeting, which drew 400 business leaders. Communist Party Chief Jiang Zemin stressed his hopes for better U.S. ties. The overall message: We're open for business, and we're going to be the next powerhouse -- don't get left out.

Not surprisingly, U.S. politicians have followed big business to China's side.

Reflecting that shift, Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., influential head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee -- who voted for the president's executive order last year -- announced last week that it's "time to de-link" trade and human rights.

He said Mr. Clinton should find China in compliance with his order and virtually asked China to help the president by taking a few more steps.

As has been true since the 1989 massacre of hundreds of protesters near Beijing's Tiananmen Square, China has been aided in its strategy by more than its share of good fortune.

Just as the Persian Gulf war underscored the potential diplomatic clout of China's veto in the United Nations Security Council, the Western world's persistent economic slump has only increased the allure of investing in the continuing Chinese -- economic boom.

The boom is for real. A U.S. study, released last week by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, R-Ore., says China will spend $400 billion on imports for its modernization over the next five years.

That's just the kind of projection that sets trans-national corporations salivating. General Electric, for example, recently said it will invest more than $500 million here within five years.

Rapid economic growth also has kept most Chinese minds off dissent, though rising inflation and urban-rural income disparities create volatility that threatens Beijing's hold.

In at least the short-term, maintenance of the Communist Party's grip depends more on expanding economic opportunities than providing for more political pluralism -- a state of affairs that does translate into pressure on the Chinese leadership to avoid fouling up its lucrative trade with America.

So there have been some steps by China to meet U.S. human rights demands. But, in contrast to the out-front drive for the support of international business, these moves have been incremental, quiet and begrudging. They've been taken only after the Chinese leadership has made sure its people don't think the United States is pushing them around.

This is entirely consistent with the overall, two-faced policy that China has followed successfully since the Tiananmen debacle: one called in Chinese "nei jin wai song," or "internal tight, external loose." While inviting the world to come and invest in China with a smiling, relaxed face, Beijing has been ever more quick to squash any domestic challenge.

In line with this, China's show of stiff, at times shrill resistance to U.S. pressure on human rights when Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher was here in March was in many ways for domestic consumption. And then for U.S. consumption, China has quietly taken a few steps to meet the specific language of Mr. Clinton's executive order, among them:

* Key prisoner releases: Mr. Chen, 42, and another prisoner also given a medical parole last month, Wang Juntao, 35, were both serving 13-year-terms as the alleged "black hands" behind the Tiananmen protests. Last week, China also released six jailed Christians involved in illegal independent churches. More releases of prominent dissidents may come before the end of the month.

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