Small Steps in US-China Relations

SECRETARY of State James Baker's visit to Beijing last week has not assuaged the clamor in Congress for trade sanctions linked to human-rights violations in China - up to and including withdrawal of most-favored-nation tariff privileges. In Mr. Baker's own words, "the gulf is too wide" between United States and Chinese viewpoints to achieve a dramatic breakthrough in one trip.This is a difficult period in US-China relations. Politically, Beijing seems frozen in an anachronistic, authoritarian mode - out of step with all its former partners in the communist world except North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. But its economy remains dynamic and its trade surplus with the US this year is headed toward $15 billion - more than any other country except Japan. That is an additional source of congressional discontent. So should Baker not have gone? Should China be quarantined until its leaders change and political reform resumes? Congress and the US media's concern over human rights is legitimate, whether violations occur in Kenya, China, or the US. Oppressed people expect the American government to speak out on these issues, and are disappointed when it does not. Americans may be accused of hypocrisy in paying so much attention to some cases - the Tiananmen killings, for example - and almost forgetting about no less horrendous cases as the Rangoon killings of 1988 and the brutal repression in Burma. But two wrongs never make a right, and the fact that enough attention is not paid to some violations of human rights does not disqualify public and private Americans from pressing for a better human-rights record in China. Indeed, over time the Chinese response to continual pressure from Washington has changed. The first reaction, in the early post-Tiananmen days, was that it's none of your business. That attitude gradually shifted to one of at least listening to American complaints, and of replying to some of them. The astrophysicist Fang Lizhi and his wife, who took refuge in the US Embassy after Tiananmen, were allowed to go into exile. Some political prisoners were released or given lenient sentences. But the pattern h as not been consistent, and the arbitrariness of the regime has not been curbed. HE Baker visit took place in the context of this dialogue on human rights and in the expectation that the Chinese would understand the seriousness of American concern only if conveyed by a top official. If the secretary of state expected immediate results, he was disappointed. He did make clear to his hosts, as he told a press conference in Beijing, that "progress in human rights is essential to progress in the overall relationship." This is an issue that the US will have to keep pressing, even though this poses a dilemma. The dilemma is that the US can't wait for the present Chinese leadership to die or to be phased out. China is a dynamic presence on the world scene. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It can and has used military power against some of its neighbors. It has a large say in how the Cambodian accords will work out. Its economic weight is being felt across the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean peninsula. The US-China dialogue must continue. Trade must continue. To deprive China of most-favored-nation privileges would cause great economic losses in Hong Kong, whose economy is increasingly tied to that of China, and seriously affect Taiwan entrepreneurs as well. As in Iraq's case, measures taken to punish the leadership end up punishing millions of ordinary citizens - workers whose jobs depend on the US market's openness to the goods they produce. Aren't these workers displacing American jobs? Yes, they are, but that is not a human rights issue, it is one of economic interdependence and the globalization of the American economy. It's a question that needs to be addressed in a different forum than that of human rights. I believe it was right for Baker to have gone to China. But the pressure on China to conform to internationally acceptable standards of human rights must continue, and in the end the Baker visit will be justified only when it is seen as part of that process.

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