Opportunity on Human Rights

WITH the annual decision to renew China's trade status just days away, the White House is preparing a counteroffensive to demonstrate that President Clinton still cares about human rights.

The administration should use the opportunity to organize support within the Group of Seven for a policy that attracts bipartisan congressional support and lays down markers for the post-Deng Xiaoping transition.

A year after Mr. Clinton's announcement ''delinking'' human rights and China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, the administration faces two related problems. First, its attempt to remove human rights as a point of tension in the Sino-US relationship has backfired. China has only clamped down harder on pro-democracy and labor activists, Tibetans, and others.

Second, the administration's human rights policy is virtually all form and little substance. Except for a well-orchestrated, high-level (though ultimately unsuccessful) campaign to censure China at the UN Human Rights Commission, it has yet to develop a strategy to exert serious pressure on China to improve human rights.

The State Department's human rights dialogue with Beijing has been little more than a pro-forma exercise. When Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary led a trade delegation to China in February, human rights was merely a talking point on her agenda. Vice President Al Gore spent 90 minutes with Premier Li Peng in Copenhagen at a UN conference in March. But once again, human rights concerns were discussed behind closed doors.

The G-7 partners will meet in Halifax, Nova Scotia, June 15-17. They include all of China's key trading partners. As China approaches the critical post-Deng transition, this is a strategic opportunity to get agreement on a common strategy to encourage Beijing to cooperate with international agencies and the various United Nations human rights mechanisms. As a first step, the summit meeting should reiterate the recommendations made in the UN resolution, which all of the G-7 countries supported -- including Japan, China's No. 1 aid donor.

Clinton should also propose that the G-7 countries set a concrete human rights agenda they will each promote.

Such an approach would help move China toward compliance with international human rights obligations, comparable to the commitments China must make to observe global trading rules as it seeks entry into the World Trade Organization.

The G-7 leaders should also appeal for the immediate, unconditional release of China's most prominent pro-democracy activist, Wei Jingsheng, held incommunicado since April 1, 1994. Recent attempts by his family to visit him, or even to learn his whereabouts, have been cruelly rebuffed by the authorities.

In its human rights policy toward China, the Clinton administration should adopt the same tough, credible approach it has effectively utilized on trade issues. For example, the Chinese government is reneging on a 1992 memo of understanding (MOU) on prison labor, denying United States Customs officials access to reeducation through labor camps on the grounds that inmates (including political detainees) sentenced administratively without a trial are not ''convicts,'' and therefore not covered by the MOU. This argument is patently absurd. The administration should immediately rescind and renegotiate the MOU, and begin banning from the US market categories of goods suspected of being made with forced labor.

Clinton can help to restore some of the credibility on human rights he lost last year with his MFN decision, but only if he is willing to exert real leadership and move beyond the rhetoric of ''commercial diplomacy.''

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