The Clinton administration's policy of putting trade ahead of civil and religious rights in China is igniting what could be the most powerful human rights movement in the US since the cold war ended.
Opposition to White House policy on China is uniting influential and unlikely allies at both ends of the American political spectrum. Social and religious conservatives, human rights advocates, anti-weapons- proliferation groups, and labor unions are rallying around a call for the US to get tough with Beijing.
"With the end of the cold war, the end of apartheid in South Africa and the coming of democracy to Latin America, the old human rights constituency fell apart. What we are seeing is the rebuilding of the human rights lobby in the US and it is coalescing over China," says Nina Shay of Freedom House, a human rights group, and author of a new book on the persecution of Christians around the world.
The new coalition's first gambit will be to derail congressional renewal next month of China's preferential US trading rights. The emergence of this coalition and public erosion of support for renewal, sets the stage for the fiercest fight over annual renewal of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) status since President Clinton "delinked" it in 1994 from human rights.
Strong support for the current trade status by the White House, American business, and many lawmakers makes it doubtful that the coalition will win.
But the expected loss does not bother the new alliance. Many members are content to raise the profile of concerns such as China's weapons sales to Iran and Pakistan, abortion, religious persecution, and poor working conditions. Its influence, they contend, will only grow as public ire rises over the administration's promotion of corporate interests over human rights in relations with the world's most powerful surviving communist dictatorship.
"This is in some ways an unlikely alliance," concedes Gary Bauer, head of the Washington-based Family Research Council, who is usually found headlining antiabortion and other Christian conservative causes in the US.
The new alliance's members include the Christian Coalition, the Southern Baptist Convention, the US Catholic Conference, the AFL-CIO, and human rights organizations. Their views are beginning to echo around the country:
* New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallore last week introduced a resolution calling on Mr. Clinton to make a diplomatic priority the cessation of anti-Christian persecution in China and elsewhere. In a throwback to the US campaign against apartheid in South Africa, Mr. Vallore indicated that he is examining whether the city might divest itself of investments in US companies that do business in those countries. A similar resolution has been introduced in the California Senate.
* Boeing is facing a demand by a group of stockholders that it adopt human rights standards for its operations in China. The resolution will be offered this week at the aircraft maker's annual shareholders meeting. Similar resolutions have been presented to Motorola and Allied Signal.
* On Capitol Hill, the challenge to US policy towards China will not end with the MFN vote. Congressional staffers say lawmakers will be scrutinizing relations closely in coming months with an eye to sending Beijing their own messages of displeasure. Among other steps, Congress may make it harder for the administration to waive economic sanctions if China resumes military-related sales to Iran and Pakistan.
"There is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the Sino-US relationship, and the dissatisfaction is building and its getting more focused on a number of issues," says a GOP staffer. "On any one of these issues the potential exists for legislation that would require the executive branch to use not just carrots, but sticks with China."
Such sentiments are not going unheeded by Clinton amid a probe of alleged Chinese influence-buying in the 1996 campaign and criticism over Vice President Al Gore's visit to Beijing earlier this month.
Clinton last week reversed a decision not to meet Martin Lee, the leading democratic voice in Hong Kong. Later, White House spokesman Mike McCurry warned of unspecified "consequences" for Sino-US relations if Beijing does not respect the rights of the British colony's people after it reverts to Chinese rule in July.
Still, the administration defends its policy of "engagement" with China, arguing that cooperation is in the interests of both countries. By opening to US investment, it says, China will be compelled to follow global norms of behavior. Confrontation, however, will sow economic and political tensions that neither country can afford, it asserts.
But critics say Clinton's policy has failed to modify Chinese conduct. The administration's own 1996 human rights assessment found that all political dissent has been crushed and persecution of Christians and other minorities is rising.