China Called Clinton’s Bluff on Human Rights


On the sunny morning of May 28, 1993, an unlikely assemblage of 40 Chinese dissidents, Chinese student leaders and Tibetan activists was summoned to the Roosevelt Room of the White House to meet the top leaders of the new Clinton administration.

As they looked on, President Clinton signed an order that, for the first time, required China to take steps toward easing political repression if it wanted renewal of its trade benefits in the United States.

“Starting today, the United States will speak with one voice on China policy,” Clinton declared optimistically. It was, in its way, a remarkable moment. Some of the leaders of the democracy movement that had swept Chinese cities in 1989 were being given tangible support by the president of the United States.


That event is now virtually expunged from the memory of the Clinton administration. And so is the China policy that went with it.

A year after imposing a series of conditions on the extension of China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) trade benefits, Clinton admitted defeat. Acknowledging that China had not done what he requested, he decided to extend the trade privileges anyway.

These days, the administration sometimes speaks as though its original policy of insisting upon human rights improvements in China never existed.

“The issue at stake is whether renewing MFN unconditionally is the best way to advance American interests,” Secretary of State Warren Christopher said in a speech in May. “The president and I are convinced that the answer is a resounding yes, a conclusion reached by every president since 1979.” He did not mention Clinton’s effort during his first 16 months in office to impose conditions on China’s trade benefits.

Asked in an interview whether Clinton’s original stance toward China was a mistake, Christopher replied, “Well, I think the initial policy was not being effective and would not have been effective if it was continued.”

The consequences of the administration’s original tough stand and its subsequent retreat have reached far beyond China.


Emboldened in Asia

After China showed that it could resist American pressure, other governments were emboldened to stand up more firmly to the United States--particularly in Asia, where nations from Indonesia to Myanmar and from North Korea to Singapore have been urged by the U.S. government to ease repressive policies.

In Indonesia, for example, President Suharto’s authoritarian regime took a harder line toward opposition groups pressing for democratic reforms. On June 21, 1994, a month after Clinton’s China reversal, the Indonesian government closed three of the nation’s most important newsmagazines, and during the following year it employed arrests and gag orders to restrict freedom of expression.

Asmara Nababan, a member of Indonesia’s government-appointed Human Rights Commission, said in an interview this spring that when Clinton backed down from his original China policy, authorities in Indonesia “became more confident that they could do the same thing [as China] if the United States wanted to make sanctions on Indonesia.”

American protests over repression in Indonesia were ignored or defied by authorities there, much as they were in Beijing.

“President Clinton and also Mrs. Clinton were famous in Indonesia for human rights activities,” asserted Mohtar Masoed, a social scientist at Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia. “But they changed their policy on China. So the realists within the Indonesian army found new evidence of the hypocrisy of America.”

The message spread by the Indonesian government, these human rights activists said, was that America may talk about human rights but that the people of Indonesia should not take the rhetoric too seriously--because, in the end, America will give much higher priority to its own economic interests.


Clinton’s abandonment of his original China policy “has undercut the U.S. credibility on human rights worldwide,” said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. “Here was a test of the willingness of the president to follow through on a commitment he personally had made.”

Not so, said John H. F. Shattuck, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, who cautioned other countries not to interpret Clinton’s 1994 decision as a message to them.

“It wasn’t a judgment to de-link trade and human rights,” Shattuck asserted in an interview. “It was a judgment to de-link MFN and human rights in China.

“I haven’t felt the China decision diminished the human rights agenda. In fact, it enhanced the agenda,” Shattuck added. He cited the examples of several other countries, including Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the United States has pushed human rights causes vigorously.

Shattuck’s examples, however, underscore how the focus of the administration’s human rights policies has shifted since the 1994 China turnabout. Increasingly, the administration is devoting its time and efforts on human rights to resolving ethnic, racial and religious conflicts rather than to overcoming political repression.

Shattuck himself draws the distinction.

“There are two principal sources of human rights abuses in the world today,” he said. “One is from authoritarian regimes, similar to those in the Cold War. Then there is a new source of human rights abuses, in states where authority is failing, where cynical political leaders fan the flames of indifference.”


During his first year in office, in 1993-94, Shattuck--the administration’s top human rights official--was dispatched to China three times. Since then, he has returned only once. He has devoted much of his energy and travel time to supporting efforts to uncover and prosecute war crimes in Bosnia.

He did, however, help lead an unsuccessful American effort this spring to obtain a U.N. resolution condemning China’s human rights practices. And, he said, the administration has not given up on human rights causes in China or in other authoritarian countries.

“The authoritarian model remains a major source of human rights abuse,” he declared.

In China, the administration’s policies have failed to win any significant easing of political repression. Indeed, in some notable ways, the situation is worse now than it was during Clinton’s first year in the White House.

In the fall of 1993, as Clinton was preparing for his first meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, China indicated that it was prepared to work out a milestone agreement to let the International Committee of the Red Cross visit its prisons. But Beijing backed off soon afterward, and there has been no progress since.

Similarly, in September 1993, China released from prison the country’s best-known advocate for democracy, Wei Jingsheng, who had served 14 years of a 15-year sentence for “counterrevolutionary” crimes. The following spring, he was arrested again. He was held incommunicado for 20 months and then sentenced to another 14 years for trying to overthrow the government.

Chinese student leader Wang Dan was freed from prison in February 1993, just after Clinton took office, in what may have been a gesture from Beijing to mollify the new administration. In May 1995, he was detained for signing petitions calling for tolerance and freedom and is still jailed, even though he has not been charged with a crime.


How did the Clinton administration blunder into a China policy it was not willing to enforce, only to abandon it in short order? In recent interviews, present and former administration officials offered a range of explanations.

“I think it was useful over the first year to gain their attention through the linkage [of trade and human rights],” National Security Advisor Anthony Lake asserted.

Another Explanation

Several administration officials offered another explanation: that Clinton’s policy of imposing human rights conditions for the renewal of China’s trade benefits was necessary to prevent Congress from abolishing those benefits entirely.

“We succeeded in not having the revocation of MFN in 1993,” maintained Sandy Berger, Lake’s deputy.

Yet the record shows that there was little or no danger in 1993 that China’s trade benefits would be revoked. At the time, only a few members of Congress--mainly Republicans, who were then in the minority--favored cutting off those benefits.

By contrast, the Democratic majority was lining up behind an approach that had been worked out by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to extend China’s trade privileges but also to require that some conditions be met.


During the George Bush administration, the Democrats, led by Mitchell, came up with a series of conditions for renewal. At the time, those conditions covered not only human rights but also China’s trade practices and its proliferation of weapons. In 1992, both Clinton, as the Democratic presidential candidate, and Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown strongly supported the idea of linking China’s trade status to human rights.

And so the new administration negotiated a deal with Mitchell and Pelosi. Clinton would impose an executive order establishing the linkage. Mitchell and Pelosi would drop their insistence on including conditions covering trade practices and arms and would also hold off on introducing legislation that went beyond Clinton’s executive order.

At the time, the congressional leaders were accused by others on Capitol Hill of having given up too much.

“My colleagues were saying: ‘You’ve abandoned proliferation. You’ve abandoned trade,’ ” Pelosi recalled. “But, you know, if George Bush had offered them this deal, they would have taken it, right?”

Clinton administration officials viewed the executive order as workable--and, in fact, there was lots of praise and almost no criticism, either within the administration or from the business community, when the president unveiled the order at the Roosevelt Room ceremonies in May 1993.

“By turning this into substantive diplomacy, the president has done a great service,” said Robert Kapp, then head of a Washington state trade group and now head of the U.S.-China Business Council, on the day the new administration announced its policy.


But the administration had overestimated the extent to which China would be willing to change its human rights practices in response to American pressure. And it had underestimated the extent of opposition in the American business community to any threatened change in China’s trade benefits.

That was an especially potent mix. The more China saw jitters mount in the American business community, the more it was willing to defy Clinton’s conditions for MFN renewal. And the more Beijing resisted, the more American corporate executives opposed Clinton’s executive order.

American businesses seemed more fearful that China’s trade benefits would be cut off than the Chinese government itself.

“I think that the policy [of linking China’s trade status to improvements in human rights] did not give us leverage to achieve the things we were trying to achieve through the policy,” Christopher observed in an interview.

Many U.S. officials in Washington and Beijing who had dealt with the Chinese government in the past were skeptical from the start that China would be willing to ease its human rights policies in response to the new administration.

But, one of these officials said, “it was like the emperor’s new clothes. No one wanted to tell [the Clinton administration] it wouldn’t work. . . . What started out in the memos as ‘It will be impossible to get the Chinese to do this’ became ‘It will be very difficult. . . .’ ”


As the prospect loomed that Clinton might have to restrict China’s trade privileges, American companies became more and more critical of the administration’s approach. They were supported, and in some cases encouraged, by members of the administration’s economic policy team.

Clinton stayed aloof from the growing debate over his own China policy. At least in public, he did not attempt to discipline members of his administration who were critical of the policy or urge the business community to line up behind his executive order.

“What happened over the course of the year is that first, the business community was always very unhappy with any conditions, so they were not only not supporting us but they were undercutting us with the Chinese,” said Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord. “And the Chinese . . . were not overly flexible.”

Talk of Next Step

Some administration officials now portray Clinton’s 1993 executive order as part of a strategy intended all along to cut the linkage between trade and human rights in China.

“As we arrived [in the White House] . . . we came to the conclusion that we needed to try to break this annual cycle of debate and the rather destructive linkage between MFN and human rights,” Berger said in an interview. “Based on the situation that then existed in Congress, we could not do that in one fell swoop. Therefore, we needed to do this, perhaps, in two bites.”

Indeed, there is now talk within the administration and on Capitol Hill of taking what would be a third and final step in sparing China the threat of ever losing its trade privileges.


Under current law, China’s MFN status needs to be renewed each year. That is an outgrowth of what is called the Jackson-Vanik amendment--a provision that was originally designed to foster Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union but that requires review each year of the trade benefits of all Communist countries.

Next year, after the elections, there will probably be efforts to repeal Jackson-Vanik entirely or to say that it does not apply to China. Such an action would end the debate and acrimony that accompany the annual renewal of China’s trade status.

“I think we ought to look at [repeal of Jackson-Vanik] seriously,” said a senior administration official who declined to be quoted by name. “I think it has become a destructive debate. It’s an annual referendum on the U.S.-China relationship which doesn’t serve much of a purpose.”

But any effort to do this will run into strong opposition from groups such as organized labor, whose officials believe that the annual debate in Washington over renewing China’s trade privileges serves to restrain Beijing’s economic and human rights policies.

Looking back, administration officials still defend Clinton’s decisions on China’s trade status, first to impose human rights conditions for its renewal and then to back down after those conditions were not met. But they also acknowledge that the sharp policy reversal of 1994 was not cost free.

“Obviously, if you switch your policy, it doesn’t help your credibility,” Lord said. “That was one of the prices we had to pay. But we felt that was better than continuing on a policy that didn’t have much support back here in the business community and we felt was no longer effectively working.”


But critics on both sides of the debate--both those who believe the administration should never have pressed human rights causes with China and those who still favor a tough stand on human rights--share one conclusion: Clinton’s 1994 retreat was more damaging than if he had never attempted to impose conditions on trade status renewal in the first place.

‘We should never, never have said we were going to do one thing and then not do it. . . ,” Pelosi maintained.

“It’s not that he [Clinton] did something I disagreed with. That happens all the time. That’s not the issue. He said he was going to do something, and then he walked away--as if he was tossing away a used napkin.”