After China pact, a diminished role for human rights?

Administration officials say they will continue to demand democraticreform.

Although not mentioned in the trade agreement between the US and China, human rights have played and will continue to play a central role in bringing the Asian giant into the World Trade Organization.

US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky cautiously said yesterday that the deal signed this week "should be judged on the basis of its merits as a trade agreement" and not as a measure to catalyze reform throughout China.

She told a breakfast meeting of reporters that "democratic political reform and greater adherence to human rights are certainly encouraged by an opening to the West and Western norms."

For years, US officials have been concerned about Beijing's reluctance to allow democratic opposition or social reform. In 1989, China shocked the world with a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Most recently, Chinese officials banned the Falun Gong, a popular spiritual movement, and jailed many members.

Congress's part to play

Members of Congress, whose votes are needed to keep the agreement alive, have also expressed concern that the Chinese have a history of breaking agreements - and even stealing military secrets. They have also threatened military action against US ally Taiwan. Further, some officials worry that the agreement will harm US workers - one reason that unions oppose the measure.

Those concerns will be at the top of the list as the Clinton administration begins a heavy lobbying campaign to bring Congress aboard.

According to Gene Sperling, President Clinton's economic adviser, "over half the Cabinet" will be working to make the China deal a reality.

Ms. Barshefsky said this deal has a better chance of making it through Congress than a previous proposal with the Chinese that Mr. Clinton turned down in April. Then, she said, "some issues with swing voters had not been resolved."

The trade agreement features a lowering of Chinese tariffs in industry, agriculture, and services. The tariffs will be lowered gradually, but most will be at levels comparable to other Asian nations by the year 2005. For example, Chinese agricultural tariffs will shrink from 31.5 percent to 14.5 percent.

'Stunning' concessions

The agreement is best viewed as a market opening and is not reciprocal, said Barshefsky, who called some of China's concessions "stunning."

Perhaps the most unpredictable element in determining the fate of the deal will be China's behavior over the next few months, which will be under a microscope as the measure is studied both in the US and Europe.

In the past, improving US-China relations have run into trouble at key moments, such as when the US bombed the Chinese Embassy this summer during the air strikes against Yugoslavia.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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