THE White House deadline to renew China's most-favored-nation trading status arrives June 3. Granting MFN to China has become an annual debate since 1989, when Congress threatened to impose sanctions on Beijing after the Tiananmen Square massacre. While MFN should not become the only lens through which to view US-China relations, still it offers one of the few public discussions about US policy toward repressive regimes.
Last year, President Clinton backed off his tough, early anti-MFN campaign rhetoric to grant MFN to China - provided Beijing meet seven human rights conditions during the year, including the ending of prison labor, and the right to emigrate. During the past year, the administration has sought to move MFN out of the center of the US-China relationship. Beijing, meanwhile, has not met the minimum human rights criteria, despite administration efforts to soft-pedal them. This puts Mr. Clinton in a tough spot. To grant MFN means the president appears to capitulate not only on China, but on the overall US position on democratic principles and values. If he does not, he again makes MFN the central issue.
Many China experts rightly question MFN's effectiveness. It may hurt many ordinary Chinese and give ammunition to hard-liners. The problem is compounded by Washington's inconsistent MFN threats, which baffle even moderate Chinese leaders. The US has issues to raise with Beijing other than MFN: weapons-technology exports, religious persecution, infringement of copyright laws, forced sterilization. Moreover, the US needs Beijing to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program.
What the president should do is apply selective sanctions against China. China has a $25 billion trade surplus with the US. Selective sanctions are thus possible. Chinese leaders do want US MFN status, despite their tough talk. They have spent a great deal of time on the issue, and their economy is completely geared for export.
What the administration should not do is abandon the MFN debate, or the important linkage between trade and human rights. Sanctions are a way to punish repressive regimes. While the administration may have to give in a bit on MFN for China, the real danger is that the administration will mothball a US human rights policy that includes punitive measures.
When Secretary of State Christopher was rebuffed in China for raising human rights, it was not because Beijing is willing to sacrifice MFN. It was because Beijing calculated Clinton isn't serious about human rights. How many other nations will agree?