U.S. claims progress in talks with China

August 31, 1994|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- After coming under criticism for taking too soft a line with China on human rights and trade, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown triumphantly claimed big -- although vague -- advances on both fronts yesterday.

Declaring that the Clinton administration's policy of "commercial diplomacy" -- putting business ties first and using quiet statesmanship on touchy subjects -- was paying off, Mr. Brown said that China had agreed to resume talks on human rights this fall with the United States. China suspended the talks last spring, when a U.S. official met a top Chinese dissident.

On the business front, Mr. Brown said U.S. firms had signed a stunning $4.7 billion in contracts over the past two days, a figure about 25 times higher than the total of all previously announced deals on the trip. U.S. officials, however, had trouble coming up with details on the new contracts and would not say if they were firm deals or letters of understanding, which do not carry much weight in China.

About $2 billion of the total is thought to involve direct purchases of U.S. products -- meaning that American workers would benefit directly from these deals -- while the rest represent U.S. investment in Chinese companies.

If the figure holds up, it would make the trade mission more successful than even the most optimistic predictions. Earlier, Commerce Department officials said they hoped that U.S. firms would sign $3 billion in new deals during Mr. Brown's visit, a figure that seemed to be slipping out of reach when less than $200 million in new contracts were inked Monday.

"We came with high expectations and have already met and surpassed those expectations. I stand before you exhilarated by the results of our first 2 1/2 days in Beijing," Mr. Brown said.

The contracts will help balance the U.S. trade deficit with China, which hit $22.8 billion last year.

Mr. Brown credited the sudden rash of success to his quiet style of diplomacy and the Chinese eagerness to show cooperation. Mr. Brown spoke with Premier Li Peng on Monday and President Jiang Zemin yesterday. He did not speak with China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, 90, who is reported to be sick and nearly incoherent.

His talks with Mr. Jiang, however, were described as "extremely productive." He delivered a private letter from President Clinton, but did not divulge its contents or his conversation.

He was also reticent about any of his meetings with top officials, characterizing all as warm and productive. When pressed on human rights, he refused to say what he had told his counterparts or how they had reacted.

Human rights had been a sticking point from the moment Mr. Brown arrived in Beijing Saturday night. A prominent dissident, Wang Dan, was detained 12 hours for interrogation and others put under house arrest.

Queried on the arrests, Mr. Brown and members of his entourage insisted that quiet diplomacy would yield greater results than open criticism.

Mr. Brown said the previous policy of threatening each spring to revoke China's most-favored-nation trading privileges with the United States unless it improved its human rights situation had borne little fruit.

By contrast, Mr. Brown said, the Clinton administration's policy of quiet engagement had brought both sides back to negotiations. The talks that he announced yesterday are to start in late September or early fall when Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen visits Washington.

Mr. Brown said the Chinese concession to resume the bilateral talks had happened so quickly that no details had been worked out.

While agreeing that the human rights talks were a positive step, independent human rights monitors in Hong Kong said the situation of dissidents has deteriorated over the past three months -- ever since the administration decided to stop linking trade with human rights.

"The simple fact is that there are more detainees now than before. Talks are fine and I hope they succeed, but the actual situation has gotten worse," said Robin Munro of Human Rights Watch-Asia.

Besides more vocal advocacy on behalf of Chinese political prisoners, human rights observers had also hoped that Mr. Brown would ask U.S. companies in China to adopt a code of ethics to promote human rights. Mr. Brown did not bring up the topic; when asked, he said it was being studied and that something might be announced in the coming months. He emphasized that it would not be imposed on the companies but rather be drawn up with their help.

U.S. business has criticized the proposed code, and some companies have only reluctantly backed their Chinese employees' rights.

Most recently, for example, a Chinese employee of Chrysler was almost fired for absenteeism after he was arrested by the Chinese Public Security Bureau and detained for several days for being a member of a church that isn't authorized by the government.

While reassuring China that the United States supported its membership in the world trade organization, or General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, Mr. Brown hinted that China still had to reform further before its application would be accepted. He ignored a near-threat issued by the Chinese demanding to join by the year's end.

Likewise, Mr. Brown did not take the controversial step of ending limited trade sanctions imposed after the army massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Yesterday ended the major part of Mr. Brown's eight-day trip. He is to push for more business today in Shanghai and Canton, before heading to Hong Kong tomorrow.

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