In its current, determined effort to persuade Congress to extend U.S. trade benefits for China, the Bush Administration has argued repeatedly that the United States maintains most of the sanctions that it imposed upon the Chinese regime two years ago.
"We continue today to impose most of the sanctions we began in the wake of the Tian An Men massacre," Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger recently told Congress. In California two weeks ago, President Bush told an Asian-American audience that "we are the last (country) to keep sanctions" against China.
But an examination of the record shows that while the original sanctions against China remain formally in effect, the Administration progressively has eased or eliminated many of them. The limits on high-level contact with Chinese leaders are virtually gone; the U.S. opposition to international lending has been relaxed, and the definitions of prohibited exports to China have been narrowed.
The only major sanctions against China that have been kept substantially intact are those involving U.S. contact with the People's Liberation Army. And recently, some Pentagon officials have quietly urged that these also be lifted--perhaps this fall or winter after the upcoming congressional battle over China's most-favored-nation trade benefits is over.
"We're trying to put together a series of gradual steps by which to restore military-to-military ties" with China, a Defense Department source says. "The problem is to get by the Congress."
Moreover, even some of the new curbs that the United States has imposed on American technology sales to China this year were adopted only after the Administration took actions that served to reduce their impact.
This spring, the President announced that he was imposing some new restrictions on the sale of American satellite components and high-speed computers to China because of U.S. objections to its exports of missile technology.
But before these new restrictions took effect, the President cleared the way for the sale of U.S. components for two new satellites to be launched in China. And last November, he had approved the sale of high-speed computers that China said it wanted for weather forecasting and for oil exploration.
"Nothing is left of the sanctions (against China) that I'm aware of," says Thomas Robinson, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He notes that the sole exception to this trend is the ban on dealing with the Chinese military.
Paul Kreisberg, an expert on Asia policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, observes: "The sanctions against China remain in effect, but in some areas they are being interpreted loosely."
The President has recommended that Congress grant an unconditional extension of China's most-favored-nation trade benefits. A country with such status has the right to export goods into this country under the same low tariffs that the United States extends to most other nations. Congress must decide within the next two months whether to go along with Bush's recommendation.
Only a few congressmen have called for an outright revocation of the trade benefits, which Congress first approved for China 11 years ago. But many others--including most congressional Democrats and some conservative Republicans--seem to favor legislation that would make future extensions of the trade benefits conditional upon improvements in the human rights climate in China and upon Beijing's willingness to rein in its efforts to export missile and nuclear technology.
The Chinese regime has threatened to retaliate against the United States for any law that imposes conditions on its American trade benefits.
"Should MFN be revoked or any conditions be attached to the renewal of MFN, it would cause direct, serious damage, not only to the economic and trade relations between China and the United States but also the overall relationship between our two countries," Zhu Qizhen, China's ambassador to Washington, said.
In seeking to persuade Congress to go along with an unconditional extension, the Bush Administration has relied heavily on the argument that most-favored-nation trading status is the wrong tool to use in registering U.S. irritation with Chinese human-rights policies.
Administration officials contend that the United States can, and does, retaliate against China in other ways. In particular, they cite the series of sanctions imposed against China in June, 1989.
"We're the only nation that has maintained the sanctions as a result of the Tian An Men Square tragedy," U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills told The Times last week, echoing what other Administration officials have said in Congress, on talk shows and in other public appearances.
The Administration originally adopted those sanctions after congressional complaints that the President was not doing enough to register U.S. concern over the massacre in Beijing, in which, by the most cautious estimates, several hundred Chinese were killed.
On June 5, 1989, the day after the Chinese army's assault into Beijing, the President banned all contacts with officials of the People's Liberation Army and all sales of military exports to China. Two weeks later, he barred exchanges between high-level U.S. and Chinese officials and said the United States would oppose loans to China by the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
The record shows that the Administration is now interpreting these sanctions in ways considerably different from two years ago.
The sanction curbing exchanges between high-level American officials and their Chinese counterparts was originally said to cover all U.S. officials at the rank of assistant secretary or higher. The impact of this sanction was first undercut in two secret visits to Beijing by Eagleburger and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft in July and December, 1989.
It was further loosened in a series of at least six meetings between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, and by Qian's visit last fall to the White House, where he met with Bush.
Two weeks ago, Eagleburger told the House Ways and Means Committee that the sanction on high-level visits to China is still in effect. "We have ceased all but the most essential bilateral visits by senior officials," he explained.
Over the last six months, four separate State Department officials of the rank of assistant secretary or higher have traveled to China. They include Undersecretary Robert M. Kimmitt, Undersecretary Reginald Bartholomew, Assistant Secretary for Asia Richard H. Soloman, and Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Richard Schifter.
Similarly, the original U.S. stand against international lending to China has been progressively relaxed to clear the way for new money to Beijing.
Originally, the United States opposed all World Bank loans to China and actively sought to block lending to Beijing by other countries--most notably Japan, which held up a $5.5-billion loan package that China considered crucial for its economic development.
But in January, 1990, the Bush Administration announced that it would support a partial resumption in World Bank lending to China. The United States said it would go along with loans only to projects that cover "basic human needs."
A year ago, shortly after the Chinese regime allowed dissident Fang Lizhi to leave the country, the Administration shifted ground again by giving the green light for Japan to resume its huge lending program to China. Japan "can make up its own mind on a lot of questions," Bush explained then.
Since that time, the World Bank has extended its lending program to China beyond simple humanitarian projects to larger ones intended for general economic development.
Under the current formula, the Bush Administration does not vote for these loans, but does not actively oppose them. Instead, it quietly allows the United States to be outvoted by its European and Japanese allies on the World Bank. Recently, a group of senators has urged the United States to make greater efforts to block international lending to China.
The curb on U.S. contact with Chinese military officials remains in effect. U.S. defense and intelligence officials have been complaining that this sanction prevents the United States from gaining valuable information about China's powerful military leaders and limits the Administration's efforts to influence Chinese behavior in such areas as missile proliferation.
"Re-establishing Sino-American defense contacts may be . . . the key to effectively monitoring domestic developments in China," says Andrew Brick of the Heritage Foundation. "Indeed, it is not inconceivable that the PLA (Chinese military) could emerge as a force for moderation in a future power struggle."
Despite the military sanctions, the Administration has found some indirect ways to try to keep in touch with the military hierarchy. An academic delegation that included a recently retired U.S. military attache met in Beijing last fall with top military figures, including President Yang Shangkun.
In early 1990, reporters at the Pentagon witnessed former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger escorting an unidentified Chinese official to see Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Shortly after blocking the exports of military-related equipment to China, the Bush Administration eased this restriction by clearing the way for the export of some "dual-use" items that have both military and civilian uses.
Still, the original 1989 curbs on military exports to China remain the tightest of all the sanctions. U.S. officials now admit that China's interest in obtaining U.S. military technology was one of the driving forces in the developing ties between the United States and China in the 1980s.
"Our judgment is that pre-Tian An Men (1989), 60% to 70% of the relationship (between the United States and China) turned into an arms sale relationship," a senior Defense official says. ". . . I think that new arms sales (to China) just seem sort of out of the question at this point. There's no interest here at all."