ATLANTA — Atlanta.--President Clinton's decision to unhitch trade and human rights in U.S.-Chinese relations was sound on its merits, and additionally fitting because, alas, a little modesty on human rights increasingly behooves us. The American record is coming under cautious but growing international scrutiny, and it is weak at key points.
The president's attempt to wrestle China into a better rights posture was a reaction to the obscene indifference with which the Bush administration shrugged off China's massacre of students and murder of democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Chinese record is appalling: Mass imprisonment of political dissidents, and for that matter, mere malcontents. The use of prisoners as slave labor. The absence of even the most basic civil liberties. Executions are often no better than political murders; certainly that was so of the 31 after Tiananmen.
But the trade sanctions would have forced no improvements, and to whatever degree they undermined China's economic liberalization would have put off the political liberalization that is its likely, if laggard, companion. U.S. business would have taken a bigger hit than Chinese, and the at-best limited U.S. ability to persuade China into regional problem-solving (most urgently, North Korea's nukes) would have been forfeited.
We need to remember, too, that the American human-rights record, though still and rightly admired for the most part, has softening spots that for many nations weaken the moral authority with which we mean to speak.
Nearly all other democratic nations have given up capital punishment and see our persistence with it as inexplicable barbarism.
We are looked at askance, too, for imprisoning a larger part of our population than any other nation instead of quashing a domestic arms race that threatens the law-abiding. The deepening racialization of our prison population incites growing international unease, as Jim Crow once did.
And, again, few democratic nations -- and certainly none with the economic means we have to do something about it -- indulge the poverty that we not only allow but practically insist upon as a point of social-Darwinist politics.
Something like a world code of conduct is slowly developing, prodded by instant TV communications. The code is, to be sure, indistinct as yet and is enforced inconsistently, with ad hoc pressures from political decisions sometimes made with ulterior motives. But though still tentative, with some of its premises arguable and not always to American liking, the code on balance promises relief for abused populations. Its minders, however, must mind themselves, too.
Forgoing one tool for prying China toward human rights, President Clinton now must find more apt means to the same end. And the nation must keep up its own human-rights inventory, so that he and his successors can persuade more by example than by power.
Tom Teepen is national correspondent of Cox Newspapers.