THE two human rights hot spots causing the most controversy for the White House are China and the Baltic states. This month, George Bush must deal anew with both of them. He must decide whether, or on what terms, to renew China's most favored nation (MFN) trading status; and amid unprecedented turmoil in Moscow, he must articulate US support for the Baltics' independence. Despite the vast cultural and political differences that separate China and the Baltics, in both places people are legitimately pursuing more democratic freedoms. In both places citizens have been killed and are still being brutally repressed. President Bush has taken heat for his tentative response to crises in both places - the Tiananmen Square massacre in China and the Soviet occupation of Vilnius last January.
This week Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis, along with the prime ministers of Latvia and Estonia, met with Bush and members of Congress. Also this week Undersecretary of State Robert Kimmitt delivered a sterner-than-usual message to Chinese officials in Beijing - telling them that arms sales (especially a pending deal on ballistic missiles for Pakistan) and human-rights violations will make it hard for Bush to approving renewal of MFN trading status for China.
The White House wants to see progress toward democracy in China and stable self-rule for the Baltics. Moreover, Bush is right to state a clear human rights standard. His task is to find some middle ground between popular outrage over oppression and the kind of dealmaking Realpolitik that coldly ignores human rights crimes as ``internal matters.''
About the most Bush can do for the Baltics right now is to keep the moral rhetoric for Baltic independence alive in his speeches and reassert the US position privately to Soviet leaders.
In contrast, the US has some trade leverage with China - and reasons to use it. Beijing got around the UN weapons embargo on Iraq, continues to prosecute Tiananmen students, is pirating about $400 million dollars worth of US software a year, and goes on persecuting Tibet. Nonetheless, withdrawing MFN would probably accomplish little more than increased Chinese weapons sales to the Middle East.
Bush should not end MFN for China, but must forcefully press every other button he can. This includes demands to release the names of the Tiananmen prisoners, and threats to cut back on high-tech trade if missile sales to Pakistan or Syria go through.
Most of all, Mr. Bush should remove the impression that democracy and human rights are secondary issues for the US in these countries.