Human Rights in the Back Seat During Summit

Clinton brings up US concerns with Jiang on Wednesday. But their positions stay the same.

President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin chuckled, complimented each other, and shook hands grinning at the end of a joint press conference after their summit this week.

Yet only moments before, the two statesmen had displayed open and pointed discord over the fundamentally divisive issue of human rights.

The scene illustrated a central conclusion of the first US-China summit since the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests: Washington and Beijing are subordinating differences over human rights to progress in their overall relationship.

As a result, despite Mr. Clinton's urgings in what he described as "a long discussion on human rights," Mr. Jiang yielded nothing significant. No agreement was reached on the release of well-known Chinese dissidents.

The summit's failure to produce progress on human rights fueled criticism of the administration's China policy on Capitol Hill, where Jiang had a breakfast meeting with key lawmakers Thursday.

Under pressure from US business interests, President Clinton decided to end the US policy of linking improvements in human rights to most-favored-nation trade status for China in 1994, and since then US has been less successful in gaining freedom for Chinese political dissidents, human rights experts say.

"The human rights situation in China has rather sharply declined since the president's de-linking decision," says Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "US credibility on human rights was severely damaged" by that decision, along with "the failure to develop any viable alternative."

The Clinton administration decided against requiring that China take specific actions on human rights as a precondition for Wednesday's summit, rights advocates say. It is unclear whether Washington will press for concessions in that area before Clinton's planned visit to China next year.

"Now they have a dilemma on their hands, if Clinton is to be the first US president to walk in Tiananmen Square since 1989," says Mr. Jendrzejczyk. Beijing traditionally holds welcoming ceremonies for state visitors in the square.

Following Wednesday's summit, senior US officials defended the policy of relying upon ongoing diplomatic dialogue rather any concrete leverage to pressure China on human rights. They indicated that in this way, China was likely to evolve gradually toward greater freedom and democracy.

"It is not inconsistent to say that Tiananmen was wrong and inviting President Jiang was not," asserted National Security Adviser Samuel Berger. "The impact of the United States having these discussions will be felt. There is no question that ultimately the evolution of China will be in that direction," referring to Chinese political reform.

Clinton appeared visibly frustrated over the lack of forward momentum on the rights issue. Throughout the press conference, he shifted between lamenting Chinese rights abuses and taking the tone of an enthusiastic teacher, hoping to inspire Jiang with lectures on American democracy. "We have profound disagreements" on human rights, he said. On the issue of Tiananmen, he said the Beijing government "is on the wrong side of history."

A few minutes earlier, Clinton welcomed Jiang's decision to visit Independence Hall in Philadelphia, "for it was there that our founders set forth the beliefs that define and inspire our nation." China will enjoy more stability, Clinton added, "as it more fully embraces the political, as well as the economic, aspirations of your people."

Yet Jiang seemed unmoved. He responded to a reporter's question by reiterating that the Tiananmen crackdown was "the correct conclusion" and "necessary" to ensure stability. The Chinese leader appeared to brush off disagreements over human rights, saying they were "just natural" given the two countries' "different historic and cultural traditions."

He alluded gingerly to the chanting of protesters that has trailed him on each leg of his US visit, calling it "noises ... in my ears.... This is a reflection of democracy."

"However, I don't believe this will have a negative impact" on US-China ties, he added.

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