China debate intersects religion and trade

US commission on religious freedom deals another setback to pending trade bill.

A government-backed group of religious and human rights experts is recommending that Congress not approve permanent normal trade relations with China.

In its first annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said it supported free trade, but that, in the case of China, Congress should wait on approving the disputed measure until "China makes substantial improvement in respect for religious freedom."

The commission also urged a harder line against the government in northern Sudan, and said Russia "has used anti-Muslim rhetoric to promote the war [in Chechnya] and to justify reported acts of brutality."

Normalizing trade relations with China is one of President Clinton's most important remaining foreign policy objectives. While it is likely to be approved in the Senate, a vote in the House, scheduled later this month, is considered too close to call.

Although the year-old nonpartisan commission is coming out strong against the administration's position, it may lack the leverage to sway one of the year's most heavily lobbied debates.

"We certainly hope [Congress] will listen to our recommendation," says Lawrence Goodrich, a spokesman for the commission.

Creating permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Beijing would assure that China's markets will be open to the US when China joins the World Trade Organization. But granting PNTR would also end Congress's annual review of China, which has been a major forum for condemning some of the country's alleged human rights abuses.

Efforts to move that forum from Congress to the United Nations have been difficult, because China is a permanent member of the Security Council.

Most prominently, the Chinese government has launched a nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Last week, authorities arrested about 100 peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square. The group says 35,000 total have been arrested.

Beijing is also accused of violating the religious freedom of Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Tibetan Buddhists.

The commission recommends that the US not grant PNTR until China changes its policy - something that is unlikely to happen in the immediate future.

The commission also cited religious intolerance in Sudan, an oil-rich nation where hundreds of thousands have died from famine and civil war.

There, the fundamentalist Muslim government of Khartoum is threatening to overrun the rebels in the south. If it wins, it is likely to impose strict Islamic law over Christians and other Muslims in the south.

The US does not give food aid to the southern rebels, in part because it would abandon a normal policy of international neutrality.

The commission, however, urges the US to step up aid to all of Sudan and, at the same time, put Khartoum on notice that, if the situation does not improve in a year, nonlethal aid could be supplied "to appropriate opposition groups."

The commission also criticizes the US government for not sealing the sanctions against Khartoum. The report says that the government there is indirectly getting financial help from US markets.

A lucrative oil pipeline is part-owned by the China National Petroleum Co. (CNPC), whose subsidiary, PetroChina Co. Ltd., has raised money in the US capital market. The money is to go into retiring CNPC's debt, some of which is tied to the Sudan oil fields, according to the commission.

"The pipeline and oil deal is creating massive revenue for Khartoum," says Mr. Goodrich.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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