China's Rebuff

IT has been a difficult Asian trip for Warren Christopher. The secretary of state spent much time on the phone to the Middle East after the Hebron massacre. He clashed with the Japanese on trade. But the most difficult part of the trip came at the end, in Beijing, where for four days he has been, in diplomatic terms, taken out to the woodshed by the Chinese. It is not going too far to say Mr. Christopher was humiliated over US demands for significant ``overall progress'' on human rights in China in order for the White House to renew China's ``most favored nation'' (MFN) status.

Prior to and during Christopher's trip to China some 17 leading dissidents were either arrested or detained. The secretary was abruptly rebuffed and lectured to by Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen when he attempted to further six months of high-level diplomacy on human rights. A top US official was even accused of breaking Chinese law by meeting with dissident Wei Jingsheng last month.

The Chinese are acting partly out of new-found economic strength; they may be trying to quash internal democratic movements. Given that the White House doesn't make the MFN decision for another two months, and that (as we predicted last week) American business leaders are demanding that President Clinton renew the trading status, Beijing surely feels it has both the time and leverage to confront Christopher. Actually, given the domestic corporate anger Mr. Clinton will have to endure if he does not renew MFN status - nonrenewal would be ineffective - the main question seems to be not whether he will renew it, but how he will reverse course in doing so.

Yet despite all the immediate calculations about MFN, the larger issue is the overall treatment of the US by China. How will China's rebuff be viewed on the international stage? What messages are received by other nations about the times we are living in when they see the leaders of a repressive regime humiliating the world's most powerful nation?

The US presence on the world stage allows for the discussion of minority rights and universal values. Certainly the Europeans, now rushing to China, have not made them an issue. How the White House responds to this challenge over its own values will set an important precedent.

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