HAVING set flexible but firm human rights conditions last June for United States trade with China, President Clinton last week abruptly reversed course. In a major change of White House policy, the president not only backed off the conditions for renewing China's most- favored-nation status, he delinked human rights from trade as a criterion for doing business with China.
There is a good case to be made for renewing MFN. Increased trade and competition with the West does force open, free-market thinking among Chinese. Monitoring and sanctioning products made with prison labor, which has been one of Clinton's central concerns, is very difficult, given levels of chaos and corruption in China and fuzzy lines between state and private enterprise. The US president does have to worry about a loss of jobs at home. He does want Beijing's help in Asia. Moreover, a virtuous policy poorly managed and conceived can do more harm than a policy that might be amoral, but is at least consistent and clear.
However, Clinton's complete reversal on China is troubling. It was done a bit coldly, with no compensatory discussion of US interest in prison labor, Tibet, crackdowns on religion and ``home churches,'' weapons technology transfers, or persecution of dissidents. If US trade with China were a narrow matter, without larger implications, the change might be acceptable. This is not the case. Delinking trade and human rights fits a larger pattern of White House foreign policy shifts that are taxing US credibility abroad and setting new norms of acceptable behavior in today's world.
In an important sense, the US-China MFN debate is not any longer a debate about China. It is a debate about what standards, values, and principles the world's most powerful democracy believes in, and why. It is a statement about what America is and what it will tolerate.
The president now says trade and human rights should not be linked. Yet the questions must be asked: At what point does this country's government link them? How repressive does a regime need to be? On principle the US should not simply trade with any country that will buy its goods. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the US trading with Nazi Germany. Sanctions can be effective, as experience with South Africa has shown.
Delinking trade and rights makes it possible to infer that if a country offers a large enough market, it may get away with greater human rights abuses. Is this the proper message?