Human Rights Whisper

ON his visit to China this week to drum up business for US companies, Ronald Brown noted that as secretary of commerce, his role is ``to promote the commercial interests of the United States.''

At that, he appears to be succeeding. So far during his delegation's visit, Westinghouse signed a $140 million deal to supply power-plant turbines; and Pitney-Bowes and IBM both have signed $20 million deals.

Yet as the highest ranking US official to visit the country since President Clinton formally uncoupled trade and human rights policies last May, granting China most-favored-nation trade status, Mr. Brown carries a responsibility to see that human rights remain high on the US-China agenda. Unfortunately, in the quest for contracts, he is failing to meet this responsibility; brief private mentions do not represent a strong commitment to the issue.

China has acknowledged Clinton's policy change by continued repressive behavior. True to form, the government arrested several leading dissidents prior to Brown's visit. In a grim report released Aug. 29, the group Human Rights Watch-Asia documents how prisoners condemned to death are used as donors for organ transplants without their consent and in some cases prior to execution.

Economic reforms, which many insist will lead to political reforms, took a pause this week. Premier Li Peng announced that the government would prop up a large number of failing state businesses, saying that ``without a strong and highly efficient body of state-owned enterprises, there would be no socialism with Chinese characteristics.'' And in an effort to cool the country's high inflation rate, he urged local governments to take measures to curb rising prices and enforce a price freeze.

Given these developments, China's announcement Aug. 30 that it will hold talks with the US on human rights in September rings hollow. Some talks are better than none, but the US has a history of accepting talk as a substitute for action in its dealings in Asia. Moreover, China is angling for concessions from the US regarding Washington's strict stand on Bejing's participation in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. To which issue are the talks ``credited''?

The White House is correct to want US companies to be major players in China's development - but not at the expense of relegating human rights issues to the level of whispers.

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