New York Times

Get Tough With China

New York, Monday, 5 April, 1999

By Paul Wellstone

WASHINGTON -- In 1994, when President Clinton formally separated China's "most favored nation" trading status from its human rights record, he insisted that this did not diminish our commitment to pursuing a vigorous human rights policy. The Administration even went so far as to claim that economic growth and liberalization in China, fueled by increased trade with the United States, would actually promote political liberalization.

Five years down the road these assurances have proved to be empty rhetoric. Last fall the Chinese authorities undertook the toughest crackdown on dissidents since the Tiananmen Square massacre a decade ago. The State Department's own human rights report, released in February, acknowledged that "China's human rights record has deteriorated sharply over the past year." As that record has worsened, though, the 1994 "de-linkage" has turned into complete disassociation. Human rights and trade are no longer parts of the same overall policy package but are proceeding on completely separate tracks.

Two recent pronouncements dramatically demonstrate the contradictions -- if not downright schizophrenia -- of the current American approach. On the same day that Charlene Barshefsky, the United States trade representative, said she would travel to China to try to close the deal on China's entrance into the World Trade Organization, the State Department announced that the United States would sponsor a United Nations resolution condemning China's terrible human rights record.

While I welcome the decision on the resolution, having been co-author of a Senate resolution calling for just this approach, I am dismayed that momentum toward W.T.O. membership for China builds as if the human rights situation there is irrelevant.

A return to a formal link between trade and human rights policy is not in the cards under this President. But we should insure that the Chinese understand that commercial concerns alone will not determine our policy.

As the Administration and Congress consider China's request for W.T.O. admission, we should insist that China, at a minimum, take concrete steps to establish an independent judiciary, a free press and respect for the rule of law. A government that routinely violates its own laws to crack down on dissent is equally likely to cheat on market access agreements, fail to honor contracts or restrict the free flow of business information from abroad. Congress should insist on voting on whether the President should support China's entry into the World Trade Organization before the Administration signs off on a W.T.O. deal.

Next week Prime Minister Zhu Rongji will pay an official visit to Washington, the first by a Chinese Premier in 15 years. This is an opportunity for the President to tell the Chinese leader just why we are calling for United Nations condemnation of China's human rights abuses and signal to him that these abuses could jeopardize any W.T.O. decision.

Since President Clinton's visit to China last June, the Chinese Government has continued to commit abuses and has taken actions that flagrantly violate the commitments it has made to respect internationally recognized human rights. Restrictions on free expression have been tightened, including the adoption of strict regulations on the formation of nongovernmental political and social organizations and the imposition of tough regulations aimed at film directors, computer software developers, artists and journalists who "endanger social order."

Based on this deplorable record, the resolution we are sponsoring at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is clearly justified. But simply introducing it is not enough. The Administration must commit to pushing for adoption, an effort that must including having the President, Vice President and members of the Cabinet lobby other countries, particularly those in the European Union. This will be an uphill battle because China has a big head start in its own lobbying, but it is preferable to sponsoring a resolution and then sitting on our hands to watch it fail.

Even if the resolution is not adopted, simply having a debate on human rights in China (and the related issue of human rights in Tibet) will make a difference. It is essential for the Administration to make clear that at this moment in history the United States stands with the courageous Chinese who are struggling to achieve the rights they deserve.

Paul Wellstone is a Democratic Senator from Minnesota.