BILL CLINTON'S campaign critique of George Bush's attitude on human rights in China was fair. The White House did "coddle" the Chinese leaders responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre. There was never an adequate American condemnation of that act - or the subsequent repression of human rights in China. As time went on, however, a sharp repudiation of China - ending most-favored-nation trade status - became a less effective option. The best way to help change a rigid xenophobic system was through fre e-market engagement.
Last October's shakeup of China's Politiburo - replacing hardliners with reformers - shows real change. So does the stock market in Guangdong province, the easing of press restrictions, and the manufacturing boom that has made China America's third-largest trading partner.
Given these changes, candidate Clinton's platform not to renew MFN is moot. The argument of engagement plus American corporate interests makes human rights a tough sell. Hence, Mr. Clinton will renew MFN but make it conditional on progress next year. This is really a continuation of the Bush policy - except that the threat to punish Beijing comes from the White House instead of Congress.
While this is the right general approach, it seems to be done out of weakness and thus may not be effectively nuanced. The problem with Clinton's concession on MFN is that it doesn't appear principled. It looks like a concession he is forced into. Given a capitulation on the real human rights tragedy in Bosnia, does he have the political capital to develop a sophisticated rights policy on China? Yet this is what he must do. Despite advice to the contrary, Clinton ought not to drop the rights question in China.
Real concerns exist. Why will China not allow the Red Cross to examine the Chinese gulag of prison labor - which may imprison as many as 10 million? How long can China's repression of Tibet go unmentioned? What is to be said of sales of Chinese missile technology, when Beijing's leaders assure Washington it isn't selling? Clinton's proposal to restrict trade from state-run businesses in China (which are more likely to operate off of prison labor) is a decent one. But this would require serious and system atic monitoring. An effective China policy must come through a more coherent overall American foreign policy.