China Not `Most Favored'

IT is three years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, but the recent nine-year prison sentence of Bao Tong, the disgraced former Communist Party leader sympathetic to the student rebellion, shows that punishment for other ways of thinking still persists in China.

Beijing's communist leaders desperately want the West to forget Tiananmen, and any repression in their country - prison and slave labor, persecution of religious groups, fear tactics. They want business as usual, and most of the world - Europe, Japan - is obliging. The US Congress, alone among Western institutions, has made human rights in China an issue, in annual debate over most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for Beijing. For this, it is regularly excoriated among China hands.

And with reason. Early efforts to punish China by cutting ties were simplistic and would, as the White House correctly argued, hurt Chinese reformers. The China hands' articles of faith are two: First, the xenophobic culture of China will not change through outside prodding. Second, contact with the liberal West more than anything else undermines the hard-line gerontocracy in Beijing.

China is not Eastern Europe in 1988, ready to throw off communism. It practices economic perestroika; but there is no accompanying glasnost.

Yet this does not mean the US should be silent and passive in the face of a clear pattern of violations of international standards of decency and rights. Over the past three years, Congress has been steadily refining its approach to Beijing - developing MFN conditions that hold up standards, but do not "disengage" the US from contact.

So far, no MFN-denying bill has survived the president's veto. But the Senate should look at a bill that just passed the House, 339-62. It gives Beijing a year to comply with rights standards - or the US raises tariffs on state, not private, Chinese industry. Verifying public vs. private exports isn't easy. But as China exports $20 billion in goods to the US, it shouldn't assume its repressions are condoned.

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