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Dealing With China

September 14, 1992



CHINA has perestroika but no glasnost. Its economic reform is dazzling - a stock market and a $15 billion trade surplus with the United States. But it also persecutes those who question its repressive Maoist politics and speak of reform.

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Many diplomats, politicians, and academics agree China is changing for the better largely because of Western contact. They warn that any punitive US action should not limit that contact - whether raising tariffs until China opens more markets or making its most-favored-nation (MFN) status conditional on human rights improvements.

Business leaders argue, perhaps correctly, that most nations are not worried about morality and will take any share of the Chinese market the US forfeits because of human rights.

Yet China's abusive conditions shouldn't be ignored by the US, even if other nations choose to. Some may argue that China's size, and its vast economic potential, outweigh the sufferings of a small band of freedom lovers. That argument is beguiling but wrong.

Last month's arrest of Tiananmen leader Seng Tong proves Beijing is lying when it says students can safely return to China. A new report smuggled to the West details torture of political prisoners in Lingyuan prison - also known as the "Lingyuan motor vehicle general assembly plant." The electric batons used to torture prisoners contrasts with a darkly comical new official Chinese report stating its jails are places where prisoners' "dignity is respected" and "personal safety is insured."

If its prisons are humane, why won't China's leaders allow them to be inspected? Someone in the international community must stand and speak against torture and coercion.

Since the Tiananmen massacre, US debate on China has been dominated by a false choice: stoic support of Western contact and trade versus tough sanctions tied to human rights violations. The White House offers the former; Congress supports the latter.

But both contact and sanctions are possible, as a recent bill passed by the House shows. The bill would maintain trade with China's private sector while placing selective tariffs on state enterprises until basic rights are observed.

The Senate should pass this bill by a veto-proof margin. But not until practical details are worked out. For example: How are state enterprises to be isolated in the complex Chinese production cycle, where state and private materials mingle?

Flexible, targeted sanctions aren't perfect. But such intermediate steps could keep the idea of a free China alive.