President Clinton told an emissary from Beijing on Monday that he wants to "strengthen" U.S. ties with China, a White House spokesman said. But in the 40-minute Oval Office meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Zou Jiahua, the President added that China still must make progress in its human rights policies if relations are to improve.
Clinton Administration officials said Zou did not offer Clinton anything new from the Chinese regime and did not promise any of the policy changes the Administration has been seeking, such as the release of dissidents and an end to the jamming of Voice of America broadcasts. "He did not bring anything with him," one Administration official said.
The meeting underscored the Administration's increasingly frenetic effort to head off a major conflict with China over human rights and trade. It was also the highest-level contact between Washington and Beijing this year, and possibly the last such session before the President decides what to do about China's trade privileges.
Clinton must decide before June 3 whether to extend China's most-favored-nation trade benefits, under which it enjoys the right to export to this country with the same low duties as most other nations.
A year ago, the President signed an executive order that said China should make "significant overall progress" on human rights if it wants to maintain its trade benefits after July, 1994. But the Chinese regime has said it will not respond to U.S. pressure.
In recent weeks, Beijing has taken steps seemingly aimed at defying the Administration's human rights policies. China arrested several dissidents during a Beijing visit by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and since has announced it is again detaining China's top democracy advocate, Wei Jingsheng. He was released from jail last September, when China was hoping to land the 2000 Olympic Games.
An Administration official said Monday night that Clinton told Zou the United States is not trying to impose its views on China. Rather, the President said, it is asking China to fulfill its human rights obligations under the U.N. Charter.
This official said the President acknowledged to Zou that China has made progress on human rights. But he said he is waiting to see what other progress there might be between now and June 3, when he must make the decision on China's trade benefits.
Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch (Asia), criticized the Administration's handling of Monday's session.
"Clinton should have come out sounding tough and like he means it. I'm very disappointed that Wei wasn't even mentioned" in public statements after the meeting, Jendrzejczyk said. Administration officials "are letting the hard-liners know that we'll look the other way if they simply give us some cover to save face for Clinton. . . . The Chinese respond to strength, not weakness."
The Administration is studying the possibility of penalizing China for human rights violations by targeting specific products from state industries. One approach being considered would be to use a provision of a 1988 trade law that allows the United States to retaliate against nations that violate labor standards.
Zou is both vice premier in charge of China's state planning apparatus and a member of the Communist Party Politburo. He was invited to Washington by Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary. Knowledgeable sources said Brown has actively pushed for the Administration to change its policy toward Beijing in a way that will help U.S. companies land more contracts in China.
"Given his rank, we thought it was important that the President should see him," one U.S. official said.
In the Oval Office meeting, Clinton was joined by other top-level U.S. officials, including Brown, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, National Economic Council chief Robert E. Rubin, Acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord.