Congress Debates When To Get Tough on China

Lawmakers agreed, MFN wasn't the right issue to take a stand on. But which will be?

The Clinton administration may not have long to savor its victory in renewing for another year China's trading rights with the United States.

A raft of new legislation is pending in the Senate and House that would compel the US to take a harder line against China's human rights abuses, arms sales to Iran, and alleged illegal diversions of US-made high technologies from civilian to military uses.

Lawmakers are also poised to act if Beijing's Communist leaders renege on pledges to respect the political rights and capitalist system of the British colony of Hong Kong after it reverts to Chinese rule at the end of the month.

Clearly, this week's House vote to renew China's most-favored nation (MFN) trading status is only one round in an ongoing fight between the White House and Congress over how to conduct US policy toward China.

"This is not and should not be the last word on the subject of the United States' relationship with Beijing," House majority leader Richard Armey (R) of Texas said after the 259 to 173 vote.

Like Representative Armey, many lawmakers did not believe that MFN renewal was the right vehicle for impacting Sino-US relations. Canceling favorable tariffs for Chinese imports, they explain, would have cost American jobs, fueled major price increases in consumer goods, and begun a confrontation with China.

"Members of Congress are frustrated. They are looking for a means of really affecting what is happening in China." says Rep. John Porter (R) of Illinois, a long-time opponent of MFN status for China who switched sides this year. "MFN is a legislative and policy dead end."

The dissatisfaction with Clinton's approach to China reflects a widespread perception that he is unwilling to take a hard line on Chinese misconduct to avoid jeopardizing investment opportunities for American firms in the world's most populous country. Many lawmakers are also troubled by allegations that China funneled illegal donations to 1996 election campaigns and they object to tight restrictions on imports that have given Beijing an estimated $40 billion trade surplus with the US.

The administration denies it has been soft on China. It points to sanctions it recently slapped on Chinese firms for selling chemical warfare components to Iran, warnings to Beijing to live up to its commitments in Hong Kong, and support for Taiwan.

"In pursuing our goals, we have a variety of tools, but no magic wand," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in a speech in San Francisco on Tuesday. "Instead, our policy is to seek to advance our interests with China by engaging in a strategic dialogue aimed at narrowing differences and identifying areas of common ground."

Lawmakers of both parties, however, agree that firmer steps are required and have introduced an array of bills, including legislation that would:

* Deny US visas to Chinese officials involved in political and religious persecution, coercive birth control programs, or the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy students at Tiananmen Square.

* Require the administration to oppose multilateral development bank loans to China.

* Require the administration to publish a list of Chinese firms linked to the Chinese military and target sanctions at those whose sales threaten US security.

* Boost funds for broadcasts into China by US-run Radio Free Asia and the Voice of America, and for democracy-building programs overseen by non-governmental organizations.

Amendments have also been added to House and Senate versions of the fiscal 1998 defense budget that would re-impose controls relaxed in 1985 on exports of US-made supercomputers that can be used to design nuclear weapons.

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