PRESIDENT Clinton's decision to end the link between China's most-favored-nation trading status and human rights is viewed by many as signaling a fundamental shift of policy. Having opted for trade, say critics, does the United States have any further leverage on how China treats its peoples - or on issues of rights in any other country? Is this the end of human rights on the US diplomacy agenda?
The president faced an agonizing choice. To keep campaign promises and satisfy key Democrats in Congress, he issued the executive order linking MFN to human rights. Decision time came on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; he could not escape public recollection of that event. The Chinese leadership, by continuing to arrest dissidents, did little to help; few experts expected it would. US business representatives, keen to continue MFN, said human rights was a political matter, not their affair. Other countries, including allies, were of little help. Inevitably, US critics would picture Mr. Clinton's decision as trading dollars for lives.
Those opposing the president's decision paid little attention to the broader diplomatic considerations. Further, many critics doubted that the Chinese would be any more amenable to pressures on key issues if MFN were continued. At stake for the US was the hope of Chinese cooperation in containing North Korean nuclear ambitions. Beyond that, with their veto on the Security Council, the Chinese could, if provoked, frustrate US designs in other regions. Inescapably, however, requests for Chinese help in pressuring other sovereign nations are likely to founder on Beijing's reluctance to set precedents that the leadership fears might be used against it.
From the beginning of this administration, the possibility of Clinton's pressing the Chinese on rights was dim. The men who run China fear internal disorder more than they do any US punishment.
The president, in a no-win situation, is not the first in the White House to face such a choice. President Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, placed cold-war security concerns ahead of human rights in friendly third-world countries. The result was a congressional revolt that, through legislation, mandated that human rights be considered in US diplomacy. President Carter, despite his strong support for human rights, made choices that favored authoritarian regimes in Iran and the Philippines. President Reagan wanted to reduce the emphasis on how other non-communist governments treated populations. Whatever the inclination of an administration, concern remains strong that the US not be identified with repressive regimes and that it, where possible, exert influence for change.
That Clinton delinked MFN and human rights does not mean that he has abandoned the cause. He cannot. Congressional and public pressures remain. Nor can US businesses working in China assume that the decision means they no longer will be observed closely for their treatment of Chinese workers. The move to enforce some type of employment standard, similar to the Sullivan principles applied in South Africa, will continue, whatever the Chinese attitude. Private groups such as Asia Watch will continue to monitor conditions and make their reports to policymakers. The legislative tools remain in force, including mandates that consideration be given to human rights in the extension of export credits and, above all, that the State Department issue annual reports on human rights conditions around the world, including China's. This requirement, in particular, is a strong instrument; checked as they are by many observers, the reports must present an honest picture. Beijing may strongly object to what it sees as an intrusion into China's internal affairs, but such objections traditionally have had little effect on the reports.
Clinton made a difficult but perhaps inescapable choice in separating trade and rights issues. Yet the question of how Beijing treats those who desire greater freedom and democracy will remain on the agenda of US-Chinese relations.