Amid a whirlwind of congressional debate over US-China policy, Rep. Gregory Meeks sits back in his Capitol Hill office, strokes his chin, and asks a Chinese dissident whether "engagement" might not work better than "threats" in persuading Beijing to improve human rights.
"You must persist in using pressure," insists democracy activist Wei Jingsheng. "If you give up the tool," he warns the New York Democrat, "the Chinese government will regress."
The "tool" is Congress's annual vote, held since 1974, on whether to grant China the same low tariffs and trading privileges that most US trade partners receive.
Today, lawmakers such as Mr. Meeks are questioning how much leverage over Chinese human rights behavior Washington actually gains from the vote. This week, Congress will decide whether to abandon the practice and extend China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR).
Some prominent dissidents such as Mr. Wei, along with US labor unions, religious groups, and human rights activists, view the annual debate as a powerful means of curbing Beijing's abuses. But pro-PNTR forces - including the White House, US business coalitions, and their allies in Congress - say the annual vote is meaningless.
"The whole thing is little less than a hoax," says Robert Kapp, president of the US-China Business Council here. Trade protectionism, he asserts, is the real, hidden agenda of many who oppose PNTR.
Past experience suggests the truth about US leverage probably lies somewhere between these two extremes. Moreover, it may have curbed the worst of the abuses.
"By giving China PNTR, the US will surrender the only significant leverage it currently holds to address the continued violation of human rights ... in China," says a statement by the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group in Washington. "It is vital that the United States hold the Beijing regime accountable," says spokeswoman Sharon Sampson.
Time for a new approach?
PNTR supporters argue that it's time to try a different approach, pointing to reports by State Department and watchdog groups that document ongoing religious persecution, labor exploitation, and other rights violations in China.
"If China is as vile and evil a place as anti-PNTR forces say it is, why would anyone in his right mind" want business as usual, says Mr Kapp.
Granting China PNTR, supporters stress, will advance human rights by helping ensure that Beijing pushes through the economic reforms and market-opening measures laid down by last year's US-China accord on Beijing's entry to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Such market reforms will expand the presence of American firms, goods, and ideas; promote the rule of law; and strengthen the hand of China's reform-minded leaders over hard-liners, they say.
The reality, however, may be more nuanced. While China's government has continued with harsh and widespread crackdowns on dissent - for example in its suppression of the China Democracy Party and the popular Falun Gong meditation movement - it is possible the threat of US trade retaliation helped check even more blatant abuses.
"It can prevent major disasters," says Wei.
Freedom for trade
Beijing's desire to sway Congress before the annual trade vote has clearly prompted the regime to free some high-profile dissidents, including intellectuals such as Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, who were jailed for their role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Although for many dissidents release abroad often means forced exile, it remains a better option than languishing in a Chinese prison.
And while the expansion of US-China commercial ties is indeed likely to create pressure for additional economic and legal reforms in China, it will not guarantee an expansion of political freedoms, PNTR supporters admit.
"Does [granting China PNTR] mean that tomorrow people are going to get out of jail? No," says Kapp. "It will not establish habeas corpus in China, or create a two-party democracy."
Congress is likely to resolve the human rights debate this week with a compromise of sorts that seeks to combine the liberating influences of trade with a new mechanism for pressuring Beijing.
"Broader trade with China can be consistent with advancing human rights, but only if it is combined with effective, sustained pressure on China to respect basic civil and political rights," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, in House testimony this month.
The House on Wednesday is likely to approve PNTR ,while creating a special commission to monitor China's human rights performance. The executive and congressional panel, modeled roughly after the Helsinki Commission, would report on China's human rights record and recommend US policy initiatives.
But some China rights experts such as Mr. Jendrzejczyk warn that the commission will lack teeth unless Congress holds a full annual debate and vote on its findings, a provision not included in the latest House legislation.
Another key issue, he says, is ensuring that lawmakers with clout and a diversity of views on China sit on the commission.
Otherwise, he says, "the commission could easily become simply window dressing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society