After a top-level review this week of U.S. policy toward China, the Clinton administration has decided to go ahead, despite intense opposition from Beijing, with a landmark United Nations resolution condemning the Chinese regime for human rights violations.
"The current situation, if it holds, will lead to a U.N. resolution" denouncing China, one U.S. official said Thursday.
But the administration also decided that it will resist a sudden upsurge of efforts on Capitol Hill to threaten to restrict China's trade benefits in this country if Beijing does not improve its human rights practices, administration officials said.
The reexamination of China policy, led by Secretary of State Warren Christopher at a meeting Tuesday, was intended to decide how to deal with recent repressive actions by the Beijing regime. Those actions include the sentencing of China's top dissident, Wei Jingsheng, to 14 years in jail on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.
Signaling the administration's two-pronged approach of condemning China yet avoiding any new economic pressure on Beijing, President Clinton, in his first public comment on Wei's case, told Times reporters on Wednesday: "I think they made a big mistake there."
Yet he quickly added: "I still believe I made the right decision to divorce the human rights dialogue from the trade issue with China, just as we do with other countries."
Only last week, a Chinese government spokesman warned that any attempts by Washington and other Western governments to win passage of a U.N. resolution criticizing the Beijing government's human rights record would amount to "interfering in China's internal affairs."
Soon after Clinton took office, he said he would not renew China's trade privileges unless Beijing met a series of conditions for improving the human rights climate. But in May 1994, Clinton backed down and dropped the link between trade and human rights in the face of intense opposition from the U.S. business community.
The Dec. 13 trial and sentencing of Wei, China's leading proponent of democracy, has sparked renewed interest by some members of Congress in threatening to cut off China's most-favored-nation, or MFN, trade privileges. Those benefits permit the Chinese to pay a lower tariff on their products imported to the United States for sale.
"I thought the MFN issue had lost steam," one congressional source said this week. "I was wrong. It's amazing how quickly it's returned."
By law, China's MFN benefits must be renewed each June. If the Republican Congress were to attempt to restrict those benefits once again next spring, Clinton could veto the measure.
However, any such action would be tinged with irony. In 1992, when President Bush vetoed Democratic legislation to curb China's trade benefits, he was subjected to savage criticism by Clinton, then a presidential candidate.
Over the past two weeks, some Clinton administration trade officials have suggested that the United States might impose a different form of trade penalty on Beijing in retaliation for human rights abuses by holding up China's application to join the World Trade Organization. But the State Department, in its review, also rejected this form of trade linkage.
Last March, for the first time, the United States and other Western governments succeeded in having a resolution criticizing China brought before the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The resolution lost by the narrow vote of 21 to 20, and China has been trying hard since then to make sure it is not brought up again next year.
Such a U.N. resolution would not lead to economic sanctions or penalize China in any other tangible way. Nevertheless, the Chinese regime cares about the formality of such a resolution and wants to avoid being labeled as an international outcast.
Last year, Chinese diplomats found themselves spending time, effort and money lining up support among some of the Third World governments that are members of the U.N. panel.
In an interview with The Times this week, Wei Jingsheng's sister, Wei Shanshan, criticized the administration for saying so quickly after her brother's imprisonment that the United States would not impose any economic penalties on China for its repression of dissidents.
"Why do they have to say this so fast?" she asked. "That's like telling the Chinese government this case doesn't matter. It's not that I want the United States to cancel MFN. But merely having a debate about it [in the past] exerted great pressure on the Chinese government."
Wei Shanshan said the long prison term imposed on her brother "is a way of testing how far they [Chinese leaders] can go. . . . They made him disappear first and they saw there was no strong international reaction, so they brought him to trial. Now, if there is no backlash, they will continue to do more with other people."
After this week's policy review, one senior U.S. official said that, even if the Chinese regime were to set Wei Jingsheng free in exile outside China's borders, that action would not by itself deter the administration from pressing for a formal U.N. condemnation of China.
"It's not just one person," said the administration official, indicating that the United States is looking for broader signs of change in China's human rights policies. U.S. officials have been urging China to release other dissidents, open a dialogue with the Tibetan Dalai Lama and let the International Committee of the Red Cross into Chinese prisons.
Shipping Wei Jingsheng overseas is a possibility that seems to be under study in Beijing. That approach would be modeled on China's release last summer of Harry Wu, a Chinese American human rights activist who was taken from jail and put on a plane back to his home in California.
However, Wei Jingsheng is a Chinese citizen, and there is no sign that he wants to leave China. It would be a violation of international law for China to force him into exile, as the Soviet Union did in the 1970s with novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and several other leading Soviet dissidents.