When Secretary of Commerce William Daley brings 15 undecided Congressmembers to Beijing this week, it will be his second trip to China in a handful of days.
Yet Secretary Daley is just one of the president's men and women who are trying to convince Congress to back permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, for China. The Clinton administration is trying to separate trade from human rights and environmental issues.
In an interview over the weekend, Secretary Daley said: "We believe that China's opening and its engagement with the rest of the world will ultimately improve the human rights situation here.... The alternative of closing China off will hurt 1.25 billion Chinese people."
A month ago President Clinton geared up to press for normalized trade relations with China in line with a bilateral pact signed last year on Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. This is expected to boost a quarter-century drive to integrate China into world structures and thereby moderate the Communist Party's rule at home.
That process, which has moved in fits and starts since President Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, has seen a ballooning of freedoms for the average Chinese to start a private company, travel or study abroad, and help build the foundations of a civil society.
"There has been a tremendous growth in individual freedoms for most Chinese in the past 30 years," says Lois Wheeler Snow, who first travelled to Beijing in 1970 with her husband, journalist Edgar Snow. After Edgar Snow wrote the best-selling "Red Star Over China" in 1936, he and his wife were treated as red royalty by Beijing's leaders.
Mrs. Snow says that "During the Cultural Revolution [of 1966-76], even your dress and hairstyle were dictated by the party.... All the billboards and banners were about Mao Zedong or the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, while today the streets of Beijing are filled with advertisements for Coke and Microsoft."
Chinese authorities recently prevented a meeting between Mrs. Snow and a pro-democracy activist in Beijing. Last week Mrs. Snow called on the United Nations Human Rights Commission to condemn Beijing's rights violations. "There has been no growth in the right to disagree with the government," she adds.
The US State Department, in its latest report on human rights in China, said that Chinese "citizens lack both the freedom peacefully to express opposition to the [Communist] Party-led political system and the right to change their national leaders or form of government." But the report added "Economic reforms have raised living standards for many, provided greater independence for entrepreneurs, and diminished state control over ... citizens' daily lives."
For the past decade, Congress has used its annual debate on trade with China as a symbolic vote on China's human rights practices. Although the US has never cut off trade ties with Beijing, "the annual debate focused international attention on rights abuses in China," says a Western official in Beijing.
Some representatives, especially Democrats, fear the loss of this symbolic leverage if they vote to grant China PNTR. But an idea being proposed as a compromise has been proposed by Rep. Sander Levin (D) of Michigan.
In congressional committees, Congressman Levin has said that as part of a deal to pass PNTR, the president and Congress should "press China on human and labor rights through a permanent ... congressional-executive commission modeled on the Helsinki Commission," which was used to monitor rights abuses in the since-disbanded Soviet Union.
Says the Western official, "This type of commission, along with resolutions on China's rights conditions in the UN, could place a world spotlight on China's political and religious prisoners, and therefore could serve the same function as the annual trade vote."
"China's entry into the WTO will give us a multilateral forum to resolve our disputes," says Daley, adding that granting China permanent trade ties does not mean the administration will abandon its efforts to influence human rights conditions inside China. To underscore the importance of the issue, during Clinton's trip to South Asia last month, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled from India to Geneva and back to deliver a 15-minute address to the UN Human Rights Commission.
Daley says China's entry onto the global stage will bring long-term progress in rights and rule by law here, and he points to a pact reached last week. "China and the United States agreed to establish a ... comparative-law dialogue [which] would include an exchange of ideas concerning commercial laws and regulations in both countries and compliance with WTO obligations." He says joint programs like this, the fruit of Clinton's engagement policy, "will ultimately improve Chinese transparency, due process, and judicial review."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society