New York Times

A Visit by China's Prime Minister

New York, Monday, 5 April, 1999

New York Times Editorial

Too often in the past six years, the Clinton Administration has let its pursuit of diplomatic engagement with China take precedence over other important American interests, like defending human rights and protecting sensitive military secrets. The visit this week of China's Prime Minister, Zhu Rongji, should be used to encourage a more exacting approach.

The timing of Zhu's visit, which begins tomorrow in Los Angeles and moves on to Washington later in the week, should be conducive to a sober exchange of views. China strongly opposes NATO's air strikes on Serbia. Washington is challenging Beijing's human rights record at United Nations meetings in Geneva. Meanwhile, efforts to finalize agreement on China's admission to the World Trade Organization, once planned as the visit's centerpiece, have hit a snag over Beijing's reluctance to open some of its markets.

The Clinton Administration should use the Washington segment of the trip for a candid discussion of current differences. The White House ought to make clear that its actions in Geneva come in response to Beijing's crackdown on dissent, which began after President Clinton visited China last summer.

The Administration should explain American policy on Kosovo and dispel Chinese fears that a precedent is being set for future international military intervention in Tibet or other Chinese regions troubled by ethnic strife. Zhu, as China's most powerful economic official, might be able to help bridge the remaining differences over Chinese membership in the W.T.O.

Zhu has established himself as China's most powerful economic reformer, guiding programs to sell off or close down money-losing state companies, shrink government ministries and divest the army of its business empire. These reforms have been slowed by the Asian economic crisis, but Zhu seems determined to see them through. He has also been a relatively moderate voice on political issues, though his interest and his influence in this area are not as great.

But whatever his personal inclinations, Zhu is part of a Chinese leadership that suppresses peaceful political expression and worries some of its neighbors with its belligerent rhetoric and provocative military activities. China's Government is also suspected of stealing America's nuclear weapons secrets and illegally funneling money into the 1996 Democratic Presidential campaign. The Administration must clearly convey strong American concerns about all of these issues.

Zhu is a lively and articulate personality, far more at ease with Western audiences than other Chinese leaders. He has a well-earned reputation for speaking clearly, without diplomatic evasion. Administration officials who meet with him should be equally direct.