WASHINGTON — Last June, during a press conference in Beijing, former President Jimmy Carter was asked about Wei Jingsheng, China's best-known political dissident, then in his eighth year in prison for "counterrevolutionary" crimes.
"I'm personally not familiar with the case that you described," Carter replied.
During that same trip, Carter, who had made an avowed commitment to human rights one of the most distinctive aspects of his foreign policy, gave an interview to Chinese newspapers in which he lavished praise upon China's treatment of the Tibetan people. Three months later, riots and demonstrations against Chinese rule broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
Carter's performance in China was not particularly unusual. During the 15 years since President Richard M. Nixon's milestone trip to China, the United States and leading U.S. officials have paid considerably less attention to human rights problems in China than in, say, the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.
Chinese political dissidents such as Wei, who led a short-lived campaign for democracy in China in the late 1970s and has been imprisoned ever since, get far less public recognition in the United States than do Soviet dissenters.
In 1978, by contrast, when Soviet activist Anatoly Shcharansky (who now calls himself Natan Sharansky) was convicted of charges strikingly similar to those against Wei, the White House immediately condemned the action. "We are all sobered by this reminder that, so late in the 20th Century, a person can be sent to jail simply for asserting his basic human rights," Carter declared then.
The U.S. policy toward human rights in China came to the fore last month, when the State Department vigorously opposed a Senate resolution condemning China for its handling of the demonstrations in Tibet.
State Department officials contended that the resolution was based on inaccurate information and inappropriately called upon the U.S. government to act in support of the Tibetan people. The resolution passed anyway.
A Double Standard?
"Is there a double standard in the United States concerning human rights in China?" California Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), the head of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, said in an interview. "I don't think there is any question about this."
Lantos bemoaned the fact that while his caucus has compiled a computerized file of dissidents in the Soviet Union, "we just don't have the telephone book for (dissidents in) China."
Among American scholars and policy-makers, even those who defend Washington's position concede that the United States does not apply the same rigorous standard in judging human rights abuses in China as it does with respect to the Soviet Union.
"Our relationships with different countries are different," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State J. Stapleton Roy, one of the senior U.S. policy-makers for China, explained last month when he was asked at a Senate hearing why the United States is not more critical of China.
He said the United States has "a differentiated approach to try to find the most effective way of advancing human rights interests that we stand behind."
Other scholars and U.S. officials point out that the United States sees foreign policy reasons to avoid offending the Chinese government, whose troops confront Soviet forces along a 4,000-mile border.
"We are in strategic conflict with the Soviet Union, and we're not with China," said one ranking U.S. official, who declined to be quoted by name.
'We're in Quasi-Alliance'
Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University's East Asian Institute, noted that "we're in a quasi-alliance with China, and we don't want to get them upset."
In addition, some scholars point to cultural and racial differences at work in the American attitudes towards China.
Because China is not a Western country, they say, Americans are less able to identify with political dissidents or other victims, and U.S. officials are more reluctant to express judgments about human rights abuses there than in the Soviet Union. Congressmen say there is no domestic constituency lobbying on behalf of human rights in China in the way that Jewish groups do for the Soviet Union.
"The Soviets are Western," added one U.S. official involved in American policy toward China. "They claim to be a part of the West, and so they get judged by Western standards. The Chinese have never claimed to be part of the West."
Finally, many scholars and policy-makers say that Chinese officials can withstand criticism of their current human rights practices simply by observing that conditions now are better than during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.