President separates China trade from human rights issues

May 27, 1994|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, unabashedly changing course, renewed China's favorable trade status yesterday and abandoned its use as a weapon for pressuring Beijing on human rights improvement.

In a mild sanction, Mr. Clinton said that the United States would ban the import of munitions, mainly ammunition and cheap automatic rifles that have poured into the country and have become a mass-market assault weapon.

The president's decisions directly contradicted a position staked out last year, when he demanded "overall, significant progress" in China's human rights record as a condition for renewing its most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status.

He acknowledged yesterday that, despite some strides, serious human rights abuses continue in China.

While the renewal of favored nation status was expected, Mr. Clinton's decision to "delink" trade privileges and human rights was debated as late as Wednesday night among administration officials. "We have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy," Mr. Clinton said at a White House briefing.

The president insisted that the United States could do more to encourage human rights progress by expanding trade and improving overall U.S.-Chinese relations.

The policy shift, in keeping with Mr. Clinton's focus on economics in foreign affairs, was cheered by business leaders, Republicans and moderate Democrats as practical and prudent. But it brought a furious reaction from human rights activists and members of Congress who have long advocated the use of trade sanctions to bring pressure on China not to repress its citizens.

Sen. George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, the majority leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said they would introduce legislation to impose trade sanctions.

"It will confirm for the Chinese Communist regime the success of its policy of repression on human rights and manipulation on trade," Mr. Mitchell said of Mr. Clinton's action.

Mr. Mitchell promised to introduce legislation after the Memorial Day congressional recess.

Assailed by AFL-CIO

In a stinging rebuke, AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland said that Mr. Clinton's decision "sends a clear message to the world: No matter what America says about democracy and human rights, in the final analysis profits, not people, matter most."

But some influential Democrats, including Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had urged the president to drop the linkage between trade and human rights.

Mr. Clinton was under heavy pressure by U.S. companies to renew favored nation status with China, which allows lower tariffs for Chinese imports.

Business executives feared that revocation would trigger a trade war, cutting U.S. firms and investors out of the world's fastest-growing market. American businesses export $8 billion in goods to China, underwriting more than 150,000 jobs in the United States.

The potential damage to U.S. interests from a trade war was highlighted yesterday with reports that China had agreed to a $5 billion deal to buy 50 aircraft from Boeing.

More surprising was the president's frank conclusion that his year-old policy hadn't worked and that it was time to switch. In doing so, he adopted some of the reasoning put forward by President George Bush, whose policy toward China Mr. Clinton had sharply criticized during their 1992 campaign.

Mr. Clinton said more could be gained by engaging the Chinese than by isolating them. He also argued that China, as the world's most populous nation, would find it difficult to appear to be buckling to pressure from Washington.

In May 1993, working with Mr. Mitchell and others in Congress, Mr. Clinton issued an executive order that gave China a year to make specific strides in its human rights record or face the end of its favored trade status this June.

Conditions met

The order set two conditions that Mr. Clinton said had been met: removing emigration restrictions and complying with a U.S.-China agreement on exports made with prison labor.

But the order also required the secretary of state to determine, in making a recommendation, whether China had made "overall, significant progress" in five other areas.

These included adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; releasing and accounting for political prisoners; ensuring humane treatment of prisoners; protecting Tibet's religious and cultural heritage; and permitting international radio and TV broadcasts into China.

Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher "has reached a conclusion with which I agree, that the Chinese did not achieve overall significant progress in all the areas outlined in the executive order relating to human rights, even though clearly there was progress made in important areas," Mr. Clinton said.

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