White House Backs Idea of China Watchdog


In an effort to overcome congressional opposition to normalizing trade ties with China, the Clinton administration is signaling its willingness to back new ways of reviewing Beijing’s conduct on human rights and other sources of friction between the U.S. and China.

That approach, which runs the risk of antagonizing China, would subject Beijing to some form of ongoing scrutiny but eliminate the divisive annual debate now conducted as a condition of its having normal trade relations with Washington, U.S. officials said.

In particular, the White House is prepared to support creation of a human rights watchdog group, modeled after the Helsinki Commission that monitored Soviet human rights behavior in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, officials told The Times. The White House is also discussing ways to keep up pressure on China on workplace standards and trade commitments.

“It seems to be a very successful model that would work here,” Commerce Secretary Bill Daley said of the Helsinki-style commission. “It seems to be a model that worked in the Russian situation, and many members [of Congress] have brought it up to us as a serious attempt to deal with the human rights issues.”


The behind-the-scenes discussions are part of a White House campaign to win over leery House Democrats, whose votes are needed for approval of permanent normal trade status for China. The administration promised Beijing that it would eliminate the annual reviews as part of an agreement paving the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which enforces global trading rules.

In Beijing today, China’s efforts to join the 135-member body this year were dealt a major blow when talks between China and the European Union ended without agreement.

EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said in a statement that “conclusion of a bilateral agreement was not possible at this stage.” But he added, “We are hopeful we will be able to finalize a deal in the coming period.” No date was set for resumption of the talks.

The elusive goal of disarming congressional opponents without alienating supporters or causing an anti-U.S. backlash in China has complicated what has become the overarching foreign policy objective of President Clinton’s remaining time in office. In coming weeks, the debate is expected to focus increasingly on finding untested ground between the traditional poles of engagement and confrontation with China.


“There’s more of a realization that we should try to do both: engage and also confront,” said Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.), who has championed the Helsinki-style commission for China.

The China bill that the administration sent to Congress earlier this month was free of contingencies related to the key controversies that surround Beijing on Capitol Hill: human rights, Taiwan, workplace standards and enforcement of China’s trade pledges.

Although the administration wants the bill to remain free of such conditions, White House officials acknowledge that a broad congressional agreement on China may have to address these concerns, perhaps through separate legislation.

The extent of congressional resistance was underscored Thursday when Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) released a letter opposing permanent trade status. It has been signed by 25 Democrats who in the past have supported normal trade ties when accompanied by an annual review.


“By granting [permanent status] to China, we would surrender our only effective economic and political leverage to effect positive change in China,” the lawmakers wrote.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who is leading Republican efforts in the House to win approval of permanent trade ties, dismissed Bonior’s efforts as part of a broader opposition based on scare tactics and an outdated world view.

“I think it’s a tragic irony that you have the president of the United States, a Democrat, establishing this as his top foreign policy . . . issue, and you have the top Democratic leadership of the House buying into and promoting with great vigor this protectionist, xenophobic, ideological baggage of the past,” Dreier said.

Organized labor raises emphatic objections to China’s workplace standards. Labor opposition is a major reason why the administration can count on only 50 Democratic votes in the House. Republican leaders have stipulated that the administration find more than 80 Democratic votes as a condition of passage.


Under WTO rules, a permanent normal trade relationship between two countries cannot be conditional. China has long made clear its distaste for the annual ritual in which members of Congress debate whether it deserves normal trade treatment. But Beijing would be expected to respond angrily to any form of annual monitoring that in effect re-creates the annual debate it seeks to escape.

The commission would be a U.S. government body with ties to Congress and the executive branch. The goal would be to maintain pressure on China to improve its conduct on human rights, abide by core labor standards and honor its commitments in the trade arena.

China analysts said Beijing might have little choice but to accept the creation of a watchdog agency.

“Obviously the Chinese would look at it angrily, but they can’t do a thing,” said Minxin Pei, a China scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.