The critics of Clinton's China policy don't like each other, either


WASHINGTON -- There is a basic lesson about American politics today in the controversy over the proper policy for the United States to follow in dealing with China.

Although candidate Bill Clinton was harshly critical of George Bush's policy of ''engagement'' during the 1992 campaign, President Clinton is following the identical policy. Like Mr. Bush, he's taking a soft line on human-rights issues in the interest of American businesses who see China first and foremost as a huge market.

The harshest criticism of that policy is coming from an odd couple -- the most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats, who attack the decision to continue most-favored nation status for China despite its recalcitrance on human-rights questions.

The basic division on this issue is less the traditional one between left and right than between ideologues and pragmatists. These days the pragmatists are clearly ascendant.

But the issue is an awkward one both for Democrats who would be president, such as Vice President Gore, and for Republicans trying to firm up their support within their party, such as Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

In his visit to Beijing, Mr. Gore's discomfort was obvious as he tried to avoid being depicted as too conciliatory in dealing with the Chinese, although he is obviously a prisoner of the Clinton policy.

A few days later, Mr. Gingrich made a show of appearing to be blunt -- an equally obvious attempt to soothe critics on the right wing of his party. And if he seemed to go well beyond his portfolio in making foreign-policy pronouncements on the defense of Taiwan, the speaker seemed unfazed.

Neither Mr. Gore nor Mr. Gingrich -- nor any other influential leader of either party -- has suggested, however, a reversal of the policy of engagement.

The policy seemed particularly egregious during the Bush years after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. Rather than joining prominently in the national outrage at the Chinese behavior, Mr. Bush waited only a few months before dispatching his national-security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to meet privately with the very leaders who had ordered the brutal crackdown on the dissidents.

The first ambassador

President Bush always insisted that he had a special relationship with the Chinese because he was the first de facto ambassador to Beijing after the normalization of the diplomatic relationship in the late 1970s. But to the naked eye it looked as if the U.S. were kowtowing to China.

So Mr. Clinton said as a candidate, he used the issue to reassure liberal Democrats who were uneasy about his stance on other questions. Once in office, however, the new Democratic president bought the argument that to isolate China would be counterproductive.

As was the case under President Bush, the Chinese responded first by buying more U.S. products and then by rejecting U.S. complaints on human rights as an unwarranted intrusion into their affairs -- to the point of throwing someone in jail on the eve of visits from U.S. leaders.

The Bush and Clinton line has been that taking a tough line on trade as a way of applying pressure on human rights would simply cause the Chinese to buy more air buses from the French at Boeing's expense. But no one has tested the proposition that China also has a practical stake in maintaining a relationship with its biggest market -- the United States.

There are obvious political risks in giving a higher priority to human rights than to economic concerns. If the Chinese buy more air buses from Europe, some jobs at Boeing may be in jeopardy. If Americans have to pay more for domestic shoes and textiles than for Chinese imports, they may not worry a great deal about slave labor in China.

But for some Americans a strong stand on human rights deserves a high priority. Unhappily for them, they are on the extremes in an era in which the pragmatic center rules.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/02/97

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