As Congress gears up to debate granting China permanent "normal trade relations" status, rights monitors and democracy activists here say integrating China into the global economy will ultimately promote freedom and reform.
"China's joining the WTO could spark protests by workers and farmers who lose their jobs, and the Communist Party is likely to clamp down over the next two to three years," says Frank Lu, who heads a human rights group in Hong Kong. "But the move will also push forward China's opening to the world. Western ideas, investors, and values will rush into the country, and that will eventually make China more free."
Congress has used annual debate on trade as its most important forum to criticize China's rights conditions ever since the People's Liberation Army crushed massive pro-democracy protests here in 1989. Some politicians and human rights groups in the US have argued that Congress would lose its most potent weapon in the battle to influence China's policies if it approves permanent economic ties.
But "isolating Beijing by rejecting permanent NTR will only make the rights situation worse," says Merle Goldman, a professor of Chinese history at Boston University. "The more China is involved in the international community, the more it will abide by global norms and rules."
More abuses this past year
Yet adding fuel to the fiery debate on Capitol Hill is a recent State Department report that states in 1999, Beijing's "poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year, as the government intensified efforts to suppress dissent."
The report says China used its police, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals to silence the founders of the fledgling China Democracy Party, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, and Tibetan monks and nuns.
A small group of former Chinese political prisoners now living in the US, including rights activist Harry Wu, are using that report as ammunition in a battle to convince Congress to reject normal trade ties with China.
But the argument of preserving potential trade sanctions as a Sword of Damocles above the heads of Beijing's leaders has few supporters among democracy activists here. The Clinton administration hopes to use the carrot of engagement to nudge China toward liberalization.
The State Department's report notes that China's opening and "economic reforms have raised living standards for many, provided greater independence for entrepreneurs, and diminished state control ... over citizens' daily lives."
President Clinton has said his backing for China's entry into WTO and for NTR is aimed at speeding up the trend toward greater economic and social freedom, and many pro-reform scholars here back that approach.
"Entry into WTO will definitely promote China's economic reforms ... and over the long term will help develop the legal system and moves toward democracy," says Bao Tong, the most senior party official to be jailed following 1989's peaceful uprising.
WTO's other positives
WTO rules will require Chinese courts to provide a level playing field for local and foreign businesses, and Mr. Bao and other liberals here say they hope that will pave the way for a fairer legal system across the board.
And if Congress gives up its yearly NTR vote, it "can still use various alternative means to influence human rights in China," says Bao, who was secretary to the party's all-powerful Politburo before being imprisoned for opposing the use of force against student protesters in '89.
Dr. Goldman agrees. "One suggestion is setting up a Congressional panel to review China's human rights record every year," she says.
The UN as a forum
"The UN Human Rights Commission is another alternative forum" to expose and condemn the imprisonment of Chinese religious and political activists, Goldman adds.
The Clinton administration has said it will sponsor a resolution criticizing Beijing's record at an annual meeting of the UN rights group in Geneva later this month. Over the past decade, China has succeeded in defeating every similar resolution put forward.
But The UN commission includes "all the nations of the world, so it is a much more effective forum to subject China to global scrutiny," Goldman says. Similar international, "public criticism of the Soviet Union's human rights violations helped undermine that system," she adds.
The US has for decades used trade to try to coax Beijing into becoming a respected player on the international stage and into moderating treatment of its critics.
And in the 20 years since China launched its capitalist reforms and opened diplomatic ties with the US, "the average Chinese has enjoyed greater privacy and been given more freedom to determine what to do with their lives," says a Western official.
"The [Chinese] government has never embraced democracy, but contact with the international community has already had a profound impact on many Chinese people," he adds.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society