President Clinton acted appropriately Thursday in decoupling human rights from trade policy in renewing most-favored-nation trading status for China. “We have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy,” he said, and we must sadly agree. It was a difficult political decision, but one thoughtfully made in recognition of the need to build a productive, long-term, strategic relationship with China. A China engaged and open is far more desirable than a communist giant in isolation.
That is not to suggest that China has made vast improvements in human rights. It has not. Nor should the United States abandon the issue. The President was unequivocally clear on two points: that the United States will continue to champion human rights and that abuses continue in China. But the attempt to leverage trade for improvements in human rights has fallen short. The question now is what is the best way to pursue human rights in China? The issue is real, but it should not be the defining element in political, economic and security discussions with Beijing.
Clinton now believes that advances in human rights are far more likely under improved relations and when they are not beneath the cloud of the annual MFN review. MFN is accorded the vast majority of U.S. trading partners without annual reviews. The status allows them to sell goods in the United States at the lowest possible tariffs.
China’s MFN status was not subject to annual wrangling until after June, 1989, when Chinese tanks rolled into Tian An Men Square in a bloody confrontation with pro-democracy demonstrators. Congress wanted China’s MFN renewal linked to human rights, but it was unable to prevail over President George Bush’s preference for unfettered MFN. During the 1992 presidential campaign Bill Clinton accused Bush of “coddling dictators” in China.
Last year President Clinton renewed MFN for China with an executive order that required China to meet seven conditions, related to human rights, prison labor and emigration issues. Secretary of State Warren Christopher certified that China had made improvements in two, but not the other five. That is probably because changing dynamics within China over the last year have slowed improvements. Tensions between the central government and the provinces have widened with modernization; further stress is resulting because, in light of the ages of senior officials, changes in leadership are expected soon.
With China in flux, Congress should support President Clinton’s balanced decision on MFN, thereby presenting a united U.S. front to Beijing.