The Problem With MFN

Human rights questions must not be limited to China's trade status

WHEN China's President Jiang Zemin told United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher several weeks ago that ``you cannot become a fat man on only one meal,'' he was not just showing off his knowledge of Chinese aphorisms. He was sending a distinct message to the US, which neither the government nor the business community has yet understood. They remain embroiled in the debate over linking human rights improvements to the granting of most-favored-nation (MFN) status. The proper response to Mr. Jiang's truism is neither to despair nor to beat a hasty retreat from our commitment to human rights. It is to encourage China to adopt a steady diet of many small meals that will gradually improve its people's health. Perhaps a few recipes are in order.

Our approach to China must recognize that the Chinese themselves are divided over human rights. Often this division is identified with an ideological split; it is actually more complex.

The US State Department's commendable focus on the harassment and imprisonment of dissidents may, with the best of intentions, have embroiled the US in an internal political struggle between pro- and anti-communist forces, in which the dissidents are a lightening rod.

But the call for observance of human rights need not be mixed up with an ideological battle. The US must show the Chinese government, in public actions and private diplomacy, that its concerns are identical with many of those expressed by respected ``mainline'' figures within China itself.

A September, 1991, edition of the People's Public Security News, an official newspaper, described the practice of torture to extract confessions as ``a stubborn illness that has not yet seen a recovery.'' In a 1989 publication of Zhengfa Luntan (Political and Law Journal), a criminologist said, ``There are quite a lot of legal scholars who think that the system of shelter and investigation [a type of detention] should be abolished [because] the Criminal Procedure Law has not given the Public Security organs the authority to exercise this power.''

Building on critiques such as these, the US government should press the Chinese to abolish the widespread practice of torture: severe beatings, the suspension of prisoners whose arms have been tied behind their backs, the application of electric batons to naked bodies and women's private parts. Torture is prohibited in Chinese law and China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. No government can lose face by enforcing its own laws and international obligations. Indeed, the Chinese government would receive universal acclaim if it were to end this malicious abuse of power by local - often corrupt - police and prison officials.

Similarly, the Chinese government should be urged to begin a step-by-step process to end its system of administrative detention, through which the police are authorized to hold anyone in custody for up to four years in ``reeducation through labor'' camps without ever bringing the case before a court. Some 1 million are detained this way.

Were we to raise the same concerns as China's own journalists and academics, the Chinese would have to respond.

This is not to say we should stop holding up the names of every dissident arrested or every person persecuted, or that we should fail to press international concerns in Tibet, where torture and administrative detention run rampant and Chinese policies threaten to erase the cultural and religious heritage of the Tibetans. But we should do this in the larger and less ideologically-charged context of China's self-acknowledged problems.

In June the administration and Congress must decide whether or not to extend China's MFN status. The decision is important; but by focusing exclusively on MFN we tend to neglect longer-term strategies.

Critics of White House efforts to keep human rights on the front burner play into the hands of the Chinese. Instead of lambasting Mr. Christopher, those who favor trade with China should devise mechanisms by which US business can exert its own pressure for change, as in South Africa. The UN Conference on Women will be held in Beijing in 1995; that provides an opportunity to keep a focus on China's human rights.

Regardless of what happens with MFN, the struggle to persuade China to meet its international and humanitarian human rights obligations will continue. It would be a tragedy if, in the name of trade, we were to turn our backs on all those who are suffering in China today; there will only be more of them tomorrow.

One meal is not enough. But as an old American aphorism has it, ``sure and steady wins the race.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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