Why Beijing Just Won’t Play Nice : Christopher protests; China figures money talks

China is often driven by a pragmatic self-interest that transcends ideology and time. That pragmatism was aptly demonstrated during Beijing’s frosty and disappointing reception of U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Chinese dissidents were rounded up and detained before and during Christopher’s four-day visit, which, ironically, focused on human rights and trade. Nice touch.

The message for domestic consumption: Beijing’s leadership is strongly in charge and will not tolerate interference in China’s internal affairs. Beijing’s message to the United States: You capitalists cannot afford to hold trade hostage to human rights; too much American business depends on it; get real.

FUTURE RELATIONS: What’s critical now is what happens or doesn’t between now and June, when President Clinton is required to tell Congress whether he favors renewing China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status. A large measure of mutual pragmatism is in order. A few face-saving gestures are needed from both Beijing and Washington. Human rights has been an important American principle since the nation’s founding. China’s crackdown in the 1989 Tian An Men demonstrations only heightened Western concern over its dismal human rights record. Last year President Clinton, by executive order, made “overall, significant progress” on human rights a condition for renewal of MFN. But Christopher left Beijing Monday with no progress made on the rights issue. Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen even grimly warned that “the U.S. side should be held accountable for all the consequences” of the failed talks.

Controversy over Christopher’s visit began even before he set foot in China. The Chinese had wanted the secretary of state to postpone his visit until after the annual session of the National People’s Congress. They also were angry that Undersecretary of State John Shattuck--a former national director of the ACLU--in preparing for Christopher’s visit met with China’s leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng, who later was among those detained by authorities.


FUTURE OBSTACLES: U.S.-Sino relations need not be irretrievably soured. Before he left Beijing, Christopher tried to give his trip an upbeat spin. The Chinese turned over new information about political prisoners and agreed to procedures for international inspection of suspected prison labor sites.

Beijing will have to demonstrate human rights progress to satisfy the Clinton conditions on MFN. But even if it does, both sides need to explore ways to decouple the rights issue from trade--without the U.S. abandoning its commitment to human rights.