LESS than a month before President Clinton must decide whether to renew preferential trade status for China, Beijing is offering US firms billions of dollars in business opportunities in a lavish effort to lobby Washington.
China's communist leaders are fully exploiting the profit motive in their campaign to regain most-favored-nation (MFN) trade privileges, while taking only minor steps to improve human rights as mandated by the United States, according to human rights advocates and China experts.
Beijing is actively enlisting US firms behind its ultimate, stated goal: pressuring Washington to sever completely the link in China policy between trade and human rights. At the same time, China is threatening that if the president cancels MFN, it will retaliate and American business will suffer.
Addressing American executives at a conference in Chicago on Friday, a senior Chinese official warned that unspecified ``disastrous results'' may follow if MFN is revoked. Tong Zhiguang, head of China's new import-export bank and a former trade minister, urged US businessmen to forestall a crisis in Sino-American ties by ``joining hands'' with their Chinese counterparts ``to get rid of this interference ... and help solve the MFN issue once and for all.''
Mr. Tong's message of ``business is business'' echoed that of two other, recent high-profile Chinese delegations.
In mid-April, Chinese trade minister Wu Yi led what China claimed was the largest-ever trade and investment mission to the United States. The 200-strong mission signed agreements in New York and Los Angeles worth more than $11 billion, including $600 million in Chinese purchases of US commodities, according to official Chinese reports.
Yesterday, Chinese Vice Premier Zou Jiahua and a delegation of 22 top Chinese economic officials left the United States after 12 days of meetings with US corporate leaders across the country.
Mr. Zou, the highest-ranking Chinese leader to make a bilateral visit to the United States since the 1989 Beijing massacre, oversaw the signing of agreements with AT&T Corporation, Amoco Corporation, Louis Dreyfus, and other firms. AT&T officials said the latest agreements to provide China with telecommunications technologies, products, and services could generate billions of dollars in revenues. China is expected to spend some $90 billion on telecommunications from now to the year 2000.
Zou's delegation also concluded a purchase of more than 250,000 bales of cotton worth at least $110 million from Allenberg Cotton Company, a division of Louis Dreyfus. Company President Joe Nicosia said the deal is likely to represent the largest sale of US cotton this year.
In Chicago, Chinese petroleum officials on Zou's delegation signed a letter of intent with Amoco to jointly study the potential for coal bed methane production in China's Ordos Basin. Amoco, which has investments of more than $600 million in China and anticipates investing several billion dollars there in coming years, is lobbying the Clinton Administration to renew MFN.
Likening MFN revocation to dropping an ``economic atom bomb,'' an Amoco spokesman said the company, along with many other major US firms, is pressing for unconditional renewal of the trade privileges for China.
``This is not to say that human rights are not important,'' the spokesman said. ``But trade issues should be handled in a completely different channel from human rights issues.''
In a meeting with Zou in Washington, Mr. Clinton reiterated US concerns about human rights and said progress in that area is necessary to strengthen bilateral ties.
Meanwhile, critics charge that the Clinton administration is succumbing to pressure and exaggerating China's progress in human rights out of a desire to renew MFN.
``The administration is going to bend over backward to try to make the case that the Chinese have met the conditions'' for extending MFN, says Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch/Asia.
Last Tuesday in Atlanta, Clinton said China had made ``overall, significant progress'' on some but not all of the human rights conditions set down in last year's executive order. The order calls for progress in seven areas, including emigration, prison labor, political prisoners, Tibet, and international broadcasting.
Human rights experts contend that the administration is greatly overrating promises by Beijing. Mr. Jendrzejczyk, who testified before Congress on the issue last Thursday, noted that China has continued to arrest and sentence dissidents, and has provided only vague and inaccurate accounting of political and religious prisoners in response to requests by Washington.