Although they have settled their differences on trade, China and the Clinton Administration are now locked in a bitter international battle over human rights that will come to a head within the next two weeks.
At issue is a proposed U.N. resolution, supported by both the European Union and the United States, that would formally express concern about "severe restrictions" on political and religious freedom in China and would call on the Chinese government to observe international standards on human rights.
The resolution is scheduled to come to a vote at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva early next month.
China has angrily complained to the Administration that the resolution is "destabilizing" and "an unfriendly act," a senior U.S. official said. Chinese officials have also suggested vaguely that, if the resolution is adopted, they may stop cooperating with the United States in multilateral diplomacy of the sort that is carried out at the United Nations.
While the issue sounds abstract and formal, it has turned into a symbolic test--for both China and the Administration--of the extent to which the world body can be used to influence Chinese policies on human rights.
"The President made very clear last spring that he intended to pursue the issue of human rights in China through multilateral approaches," Assistant Secretary of State John H. Shattuck said.
Another Administration official said that pressing for the U.N. resolution is "one of the ways we can show we care about this. It obviously gets China's attention, because they're working so hard against this thing."
Both China and the United States have been engaged in intensive, high-level international diplomacy for months, with each side trying to enlist the support of other U.N. members. The membership of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights numbers 53 countries, including China and the United States.
For example, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake is said to have taken the time during his December trip to Africa to quietly urge African leaders to support the U.N. resolution on human rights in China. For its part, China has been issuing diplomatic warnings "at incredibly high levels" that the resolution should be killed, a European diplomat said.
Over the weekend, China released a scathing, official denunciation of U.S. human rights policies, accusing Washington of trying to set itself up as "the global judge of human rights." The document was written in a way that might appeal to other countries whose human rights practices have been criticized by the United States.
"The so-called human rights issue has all along been used by the U.S. government as a pretext for interfering in China's internal affairs and launching unwarranted attacks on China," said the Chinese document, issued in the name of the State Council.
Although China seems to be blaming the United States for the proposed U.N. resolution, in fact the measure is being formally sponsored by the EU as well as the United States. "France, the United States and other European countries have been formally presenting diplomatic requests to other nations to get this onto the table in Geneva," one European diplomat said recently.
This is not the first time that the U.N. commission has been asked to adopt a resolution on China. Similar proposals have been made in the last five years, since the year after China's 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tian An Men Square.
China previously has succeeded in lining up enough support from Third World nations to keep the issue off the table in Geneva. But this year, the United States and European governments have been working harder than in the past to win support for the resolution.
The U.N. resolution will come to a vote as Chinese dissidents are becoming more active than at any time since a year ago, when Chinese authorities made a series of arrests and detentions on the eve of a trip to China by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
In Beijing on Monday, more than two dozen Chinese dissidents petitioned the National People's Congress, China's legislature, for better protection of human rights. They also appealed to non-Communists to unite in opposition to one-party rule in China.
It was the second such move in two days by Chinese dissidents. On Sunday, 12 intellectuals petitioned the legislature for independent investigations into official corruption.
Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is expected to arrive in Beijing today for talks aimed at smoothing over frictions between the Administration and China.
A senior Administration official said that Lord's visit is an attempt to persuade China not to overreact to the human rights resolution. "This shouldn't be seen as a United States-punishing-China thing but as part of a global effort on human rights," he said.