CONGRESSIONAL opposition to President Bush's proposal to continue providing China with America's best trading terms remains strong, but there are signs of possible compromise. Opposition to most-favored nation trading status for China centers around Beijing's harsh human rights record of recent years. What Congress is trying to decide is whether it should flatly turn down extension of these terms, called ``most-favored nation'' status, or tentatively extend them with stiff conditions that require China to improve human rights and other actions. Congress is likely to do the latter.
The conditions Congress demands may be so strict that China will be unwilling or unable to meet them. Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says he fears that Congress ``will attach such tough conditions ... that for all practical purposes it becomes a turndown'' of most-favored nation status.
Members are debating among themselves exactly what conditions they should require that would result in China's improving its human rights actions, instead of simply protesting American criticism. It has done the latter frequently since China's leaders brutally put down a student pro-democracy protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square two years ago this week. One thing all in Congress agree on: China's human rights record is not defensible.
Mr. Bush's extension of most-favored nation status automatically takes effect unless both houses of Congress disapprove it by a two-thirds majority within 90 days after he introduces his extension bill, expected early this week. Congress may decide to let the extension take effect but pass a separate proposal that would subsequently withdraw these trading terms unless China dramatically improves its actions in human rights and other issues.
Before deciding what course of action to take, the House Democratic leadership plans to wait until after Bush introduces his bill, in order to see precisely what it proposes. The president could veto a congressional bill that he thought too restrictive on China, and the Congress could effectively veto the Bush proposal. Thus, a compromise may well occur. This past week the president and Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine expressed willingness to talk with each other on the subject, t he first step in what may lead to a compromise solution.
China and the United States are important trading partners, doing some $20 billion a year in trade. China exports to America goods worth three times as much as what the US sells there.
But the debate in Washington is about more than trade. It is about how the world's largest democracy should treat the globe's most populous nation, with its intransigent leadership, in order to influence it both in the present and the future.
Members of Congress from both political parties say the US has had no success in changing China's human rights policies in the two years since Tiananman Square. Many Democrats fault President Bush for being too lenient. Renewing most-favored nation status without conditions ``will perpetuate a failed policy,'' says Senator Mitchell.
``The real question is,'' said Mr. Hamilton at a Monitor breakfast, ``how do you get China to move in the direction we want? By revoking MFN? Or by continuing that policy with conditions?
``I think the latter is the case,'' he added.
Hamilton appears to be in the growing congressional mainstream of members who want to extend most-favored nation status but, unlike Bush, with conditions. Hamilton favors continuing MFN status for one year, but with ``fairly specific'' conditions, chiefly on human rights.
Senator Mitchell proposes continuing the current favorable trading status for six months - provided China makes major advances in human rights, ends unfair trading practices, and cooperates with other major nations in reducing the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry.
If China failed to meet all conditions, MFN status would be taken away from it six months after the Mitchell bill passed.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California would prohibit the resident from extending MFN status unless China adhered to stringent human-rights requirements. Representative Pelosi would require China to release all political prisons imprisoned since Tiananmen Square, account for all political prisoners detained since then, and make ``significant progress'' in several other areas of human rights, including an end to religious persecution and to torture. Without mentioning Pelosi by name, Hamilton made clear he thought conditions like these are not achievable.
Rep. Gerald Solomon (R) of New York proposes flatly rejecting any extension of MFN trading benefits to China.
That step goes unnecessarily far, says Hamilton: ``I think we can maintain our ideals and be true to what we believe in.''