Chinese Dissidents to US: Prod but Don't Punish

Support for President Clinton's decision to renew Beijing's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status is coming from a seemingly unlikely quarter in China.

A wide range of reform-minded intellectuals here, including some who were active in 1989's pro-democracy movement, are welcoming Washington's move to reaffirm its economic ties with China.

"Inside China, most intellectuals strongly support normal trade ties between Beijing and Washington, and see MFN as a positive force for China's policies of opening and economic reform," says Liu Yuansheng, a bookshop owner.

"Cutting off MFN is the equivalent of branding the Chinese people enemies of the US, and by attempting to isolate Beijing, Washington would lose any influence over China's future," adds Ms. Liu.

Chinese officials praised Clinton's announcement this week on extending normal trade privileges for Beijing, but the decision is expected to spark a heated debate in the US Congress.

"An unlikely coalition of the left and the right is emerging in the US to attack the center," said Joseph Nye, a dean at Harvard University, during a recent talk in Beijing. American human rights advocates who deplore China's treatment of its dissidents, and conservatives who see Beijing as a potential threat to global stability, are joining hands to oppose Clinton's policy of engagement with China, adds Mr. Nye.

Yet not a single Chinese dissident here has backed calls to revoke China's trade privileges due to its human rights abuses.

"Ending MFN status would hurt not only the Chinese economy, but the Chinese people," says Wang Lingyun, the mother of Wang Dan, the imprisoned leader of the 1989 democracy movement.

Wang Dan himself, during a brief period of freedom at the end of his first jail term in 1993, said he backed strengthened China-US ties. "Stronger trade contacts with the West are likely to give reformists in the Chinese government more room for maneuvering and push forward China's integration with the world community."

Wang Dan was sentenced to an additional 11 years imprisonment last year for "attempting to subvert the government" through such acts as writing for the Hong Kong press and taking a correspondence course through University of California at Berkeley.

Yet "Wang Dan has always put the nation's interests above his own, and he believes that better ties with the US can only help China," says Wang Lingyun.

She adds she was notified in March that Wang Dan might be released on medical parole and sent to the US. But since Vice President Al Gore's March visit to China, she has received no further news.

In its annual report on human rights, the State Department said that Beijing's tolerance of divergent political views and activities had sharply dropped in 1996. Although that finding could fuel the MFN debate, bookstore owner Liu, who was branded a "class enemy" during Chairman Mao Zedong's reign, says China has seen remarkable changes since 1972, when the US reestablished friendly ties with China.

China has dismantled much of its Soviet-model economy, and many intellectuals here believe it will also gradually jettison the most repressive aspects of its state controls.

But Beijing is much more likely to respond positively to the advice of friendly Western governments than to economic threats, they say.

"Change will come step-by-step," says a supporter of political reform here, "and the US can only hope to promote positive trends here by broadening rather than limiting its ties with Beijing."

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