PREDICTABLY, now that President Clinton has reached his decision about the extension of most-favored-nation (MFN) status for China, public and media attention to the world's most populous nation has faded. That is a shame, for far from concluding the question of how American economic and political interests relate in China, the MFN decision signals the beginning of a no less important, if less dramatic, chapter. It is critical that we resist the inclination of parties on all sides to put that decision behind us and instead seek to understand the lessons it holds.
For American human rights advocacy groups, Mr. Clinton's decision represents a shattering rejection at the hands of a president and many members of Congress supposedly on their side. No one who follows these issues can deny the massive work that dedicated people within the human rights community devoted to chronicling China's abundant human rights problems. But good intentions and hard work are no substitute for careful study of the political and social landscape here and in China or for the exercise of good judgment about what to do once the landscape has been surveyed.
The human rights community by and large misread the situation at home and abroad. It failed to discern the transparent partisan political motivation that lay behind much of the opposition to President Bush's policy of engagement voiced by Democratic members of Congress and by candidate Clinton in 1992. It was also peremptory in dismissing as self-serving apologia from people hoping to curry favor with Beijing opinions from business, academe, and other sources that differed from its own position.
By establishing a litmus test that effectively rejected people who continued to have contact with China, opponents of extending MFN spelled their own defeat, for an interest group demanding saintliness as the price of inclusion will be small. In so doing, it excluded from consideration a wealth of data about the ways in which life in China is changing and so formed its positions on a needlessly incomplete basis.
Had fuller account been taken of such data, opponents of MFN might have realized that alongside the human rights abuses they so courageously brought to public attention, China has been experiencing extraordinary change in every area of life. Far from being the Stalinist totalitarian state depicted by opponents of MFN, Beijing increasingly has difficulty exercising such normal attributes of sovereignty as collecting the central government's taxes or ensuring that its writ will run nationally - even it if continues to possess the capacity to rain episodic violence on those it views as serious political threats.
While this may be cold comfort for dissidents, it suggests the need for rethinking tactics intended to address long-standing human rights abuses and for giving attention to additional rights problems (such as the trafficking in women and children).
Business and the establishmentarian policy types who used the Council on Foreign Relations to mock the Clinton administration this spring privately harbor the view that respect for American economic rights can be fostered in China without raising the troubling question of Chinese political rights. The history of this century demonstrates the folly of any such conceit. With rare exceptions, authoritarian governments do not have impressive long-term records of honoring the rights of businesses, especially from abroad, or of keeping the hands of high officialdom out of the till. Mounting evidence suggests that China is no exception.
Business will need to be vigilant about measures conducive to its own long-term interests in China, because the administration cannot be counted on to do more than serve what it calculates to be its own short-term electoral interests. The decision to extend MFN is defensible, but the way in which the administration reached it is not.
In an effort to make all major domestic constituencies happy, the administration proved unable to form coherent policy. It ended up rewarding, rather than sanctioning, China for failing to live up to the standards it had established only a year earlier. The resultant disjuncture between our government's rhetoric and actions poorly served both nations, undermining advocates of human rights both here and there, reinforcing the cynicism of the most hard-line Chinese leaders about our commitment to such matters, and increasing the likelihood of Chinese resistance on future disputed issues, be they about rights, business, North Korea, or the environment.
Regarding MFN, the United States and China may have been fortunate that the administration allowed itself to be badgered into a defensible decision. Yet there is no guarantee that might will equal right again. The specter looms that this month Washington may dissipate whatever goodwill the MFN decision secured if, as seems likely, it takes a far tougher line on maintaining intellectual property rights than it did on core human rights in its rush to please the software and entertainment industries.
This administration sorely needs to begin formation of at least the parameters of a policy toward China that provides for a forthright weighing and airing of all of our nation's short- and long-term interests there. It needs to recognize both the indivisibility of political and economic rights and the indefensibility of the cold-war-era assumption that pressure brought to bear on central political authorities will effect change throughout China. Unless our government's efforts are infused with a greater honesty about the choices we must make at home and a richer understanding of the transformations Chinese society is undergoing, the anguish of this spring's MFN decision will have all been for naught. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.