House Speaker Thomas S. Foley declared his support Wednesday for severing the link between China's questionable human rights record and its U.S. trade benefits.
The Washington Democrat's announcement came a day after 106 other House members, Republicans and Democrats, urged President Clinton in a letter to renew China's most-favored-nation trade status without conditions and set up a new, bilateral commission to confront human rights issues.
Taken together, the actions are further evidence of the growing support in Congress for extending the benefits and separating them from China's progress on human rights.
They also indicate the extent to which pragmatic concerns for the health of the U.S. economy are taking precedent over human rights considerations.
President Clinton--who at one time was a staunch supporter of linking China's special trade status to progress on human rights--is expected by June 3 to make his recommendation on whether to extend China's trade benefits, with or without conditions.
That recommendation will be based on his review of Beijing's human rights performance in seven key areas.
White House officials have indicated that the President, under heavy pressure from wary U.S. businesses, is likely to continue the special trade status in some form. But he is said to be considering some kinds of sanctions to force human rights concessions from China.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher, returning from a Middle East trip, planned to present the President with four options this weekend, in hopes of producing a decision sometime next week.
The most-favored status allows countries to enjoy the same low tariffs as most U.S. trading partners on goods they export to the United States--a privilege that China has enjoyed since 1980.
But after the Chinese regime crushed a pro-democracy movement in a bloody confrontation at Tian An Men Square in 1989, Congress passed legislation canceling the status. Former President George Bush successfully vetoed it.
Last year, after Clinton became President, Congress extended the trade benefits for a year on condition that China improve its human rights performance.
This year, however, economic concerns about the $8.8 billion worth of U.S. exports to China have been given more consideration in the debate than traditional concerns over repression by China's aging Communist hierarchy.
A pivotal congressional figure in the debate, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.), is preparing legislation to place some sanctions on China if most-favored status is retained.
A passionate advocate for human rights in formation of U.S. foreign policy, Mitchell said he believes that the Chinese have failed to meet all the President's requirements on human rights progress outlined in 1993.
Beijing continues to imprison political dissidents, for example, and has failed to change its repressive policy toward Tibet or to halt its jamming of Voice of America radio broadcasts. It has only recently agreed to discuss the VOA broadcasts and has freed some political prisoners.
Foley--who outlined his position to reporters at a news conference--said the withdrawal of trade benefits for China would be self-defeating in advancing human rights.
"Not only would we have a trade disruption . . . but the very reason for withdrawing it, which would be dissatisfaction with China's human rights record, would make us less influential, not more influential, with the Chinese on that subject," he said.
The letter to Clinton was signed by leading figures such as Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and the two top House Republicans, Minority Leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois and Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas has taken a similar position.