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Don't Link Human Rights and China Trade

How Washington can keep human rights central to a broad agenda with Beijing

IT is time for a new dialogue with China. Conditioning trade on progress in human rights is no longer the most effective tool to promote our interests in China, including human rights.

Our policy of conditioning most-favored-nation trade status (MFN) on improvements in human rights in China grew out of the grotesque confrontation in June 1989 in Tiananmen Square. It was a policy I wholeheartedly supported and it was correct for 1989. But five years have passed. While repression remains in China, the opening of the economy has allowed a process of social and economic change to begin that hard-liners in the Chinese leadership probably could not stop without paying an exorbitant price.

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The better living standards and greater economic choice brought by the presence of American companies are no substitute for fundamental political rights and freedoms. However, the exposure to our values, ideas, and culture is a potent weapon in the struggle to promote those basic rights. It is perhaps our strongest weapon. Cutting off MFN now would thwart the process and empower the hard-liners, who would rather slam shut the open door to China's economic liberalization.

We also must be more mindful that our relationship with China is complex and central to advancement of all our interests in the region, not just human rights. China supplies nuclear-weapons-related materials to some of the most dangerous nations in Asia and the Middle East. With more than $100 billion in foreign trade and a growth rate of 13 percent in the last two years alone, China is also the largest emerging market in the world. It controls the future of Tibet and is the power with the most influence on North Korea. China is also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, whose vote we need on critical issues such as Bosnia, peacekeeping, and, possibly, sanctions against North Korea for nuclear proliferation. We cannot afford to adopt a cold-war policy of unilateral exclusion or isolation; it will only backfire.

We must develop a new policy toward China that seeks improvements in human rights as a central tenet, but is broad and flexible enough to recognize and embrace the totality of our interests.

We should set up a program administered out of the United States embassy in Beijing and our consulate in Hong Kong to provide direct assistance to human rights activists. This program could provide legal-aid information, technical help, and financial support for grass-roots undertakings when possible.

We should ensure that our human rights officers in our embassy in Beijing and in each of our consulates in China do more than simply report on abuses. They should regularly press the limits of the system to obtain and convey to the outside world information about human rights abuses.

We should establish a code of conduct for US companies in China, akin to the Sullivan Code adopted for American companies in South Africa in the 1980s. The companies would be called upon to provide information about worker rights and international labor laws and practices.

Most important, we must convince our allies that the only effective form of pressure on Beijing in the human rights area is multilateral. A few months ago China prevented the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva from voting on a resolution condemning Beijing's recent crackdown on dissidents. China controlled this situation because our allies were afraid that voting for this resolution could undermine their commercial relationships. If all of China's trading partners had stuck together, China could not have taken this issue off the table. China can take economic revenge on one trading partner; it cannot easily afford to take it on them all.

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In addition we should: maximize the flow of information into China through expanded radio and television broadcasting; increase international exchange programs; and introduce new development agencies. China's need for Western, and particularly US, technology provides us with yet another ready-made opportunity.

The past has clearly demonstrated that we possess no stick, including MFN, which can force China to embrace internationally recognized human rights and freedoms. We can encourage, we can cajole, we can entreat, we can embarrass the rulers in Beijing but we cannot compel.

While China does not pose the same threat as the former Soviet Union, its power and influence will grow in Asia and in the world at large. Our national interest demands that we develop a new, constructive relationship with China - one that still champions human rights, but uncouples it from trade and allows us to pursue all of our interests simultaneously.

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