Financing China's army

August 08, 1994|By A.M. Rosenthal

TWO MONTHS ago, President Clinton wiped out Asian human rights as a political, economic or diplomatic concern of his administration's foreign policy.

He did this with the help and guidance of the American China lobby, which pays for its business profits in China by supporting the interests of the government in Beijing.

But only the president himself could actually do the deed and only in one way -- by tearing up the promises he had made before and after the presidential campaign, including his own executive order. That was the one all about how the minimum trade tariffs China enjoys would be raised unless Beijing allowed Chinese and Tibetan citizens some relief from forced labor, political arrest, prison torture and religious persecution.

China, sensing the sponginess of the president's commitment to human rights before many of us who voted for him, did not give him an inch. So he caved.

Why he did I do not know or perhaps am not ready to believe. President Clinton learned long ago how important the money and other support of major corporations are at election time. All American politicians learn this. But not all go along, not on such an issue of honor and heart.

At least 100 members of the House of Representatives have stated their readiness to resist the pressure of the China lobby, the president and Beijing. Next week they will vote for legislation to raise the low tariffs subsidizing the massive exports of the Chinese army to the United States -- yes, the Chinese army.

How many more will join them depends in good part on how many Americans really care, enough to show it.

Once the tariff pressure was off, the Chinese repaid Mr. Clinton exactly as he and the lobby could have foretold -- if they had cared.

Human Rights Watch/Asia reports that the noose has tightened on all dissident activity. And the political branch of the conference of American Catholic bishops says that religious persecution is increasing and so is forced abortion.

Economically China is cashing in big. This year it will sell Americans $30 billion more than it buys from them.

Meanwhile Beijing, according to the CIA, is the chief nuclear supplier to Iran and the major missile salesman to Syria and Iran, still tests nuclear weapons and is the only major nuclear power to increase its military budget.

Here is the evil comedy: The U.S. consumer is supporting the growth of the Chinese "People's Army," which is both the major instrument of Chinese power abroad and the major weapon of repression at home.

Are we all total fools with no commitment to human rights or even our own interests? No, not all of us -- not the bishops, not the AFL-CIO, not the human rights groups, and not those members of Congress getting ready for next week's fight.

One of them, Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., has introduced one-paragraph legislation: Reject the president's decision, raise the tariffs.

The other representatives have put together compromise legislation that targets principally those products manufactured by the network of thousands of plants owned by the Chinese army.

The administration is now so trapped by China that along with the China lobby it is actually fighting any human rights move against the forced-labor economic power of the Chinese military or its subsidization by U.S. low tariffs.

The Chinese army's products range from guns exported by the thousands to America to machinery, furniture and clothing -- often produced by prisoners.

That wipes out American competition and makes for huge profits that go to the leading Communist Party families, the party itself and the Chinese army.

All around Asia other countries with a taste for repression are delighted with the signal from Washington -- forget that human rights stuff, when it comes to trade America does not care.

American voters have a choice. They can phone or fax their minds to their representatives about subsidizing the Chinese army. Or they can go on making Chinese generals even merrier.

Either way, one day the news of the American choice will get to the Chinese and Tibetans in their subsidized torture cells and labor camps.

A. M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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