WASHINGTON — Citing continuing political repression in China, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) urged President Bush on Friday not to seek an extension of China's most-favored-nation trade benefits when they come up for renewal early next month.
In a biting attack on the Bush Administration's policy toward China, delivered on the Senate floor, Mitchell asserted, "It's time to abandon this failed policy, not to embellish it with new concessions."
Mitchell also strongly criticized China for allegedly trying to bargain for the release of Fang Lizhi, the dissident who took refuge inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing shortly after the government crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tian An Men Square last June.
Mitchell's remarks demonstrated that Bush may find it difficult to persuade Congress to approve an extension of trade benefits to China. Moreover, they served notice that the Democratic leadership may use the debate on China's trade benefits as a vehicle for a new round of attacks on the Administration's policy of seeking reconciliation with Beijing.
A country with most-favored-nation trade status can export its goods to this country under the lowest available tariff rates. China has enjoyed the status for a decade, and Bush must notify Congress by June 3 whether he plans to extend the trade benefits for another year.
The President insisted this week that he had not yet decided what to do. There have been indications that he and other Administration officials favor continuing the benefits, but want to delay taking a public position to keep China off balance and, perhaps, to extract further concessions from the Chinese leadership.
Mitchell's statement aroused concern among those officials and business groups that favor extending China's trade benefits.
"It's not good," said Roger W. Sullivan, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, which represents American companies doing business with China. "There are some congressmen who say, 'We don't care about this issue. We're going to look at what the leadership wants.' "
However, several congressional sources said they do not believe that there is enough support on Capitol Hill to revoke China's trade benefits if the Administration decides to support an extension.
"I don't think the votes are there," said one Democratic staff aide. "We might have the votes to pass a bill to revoke MFN, but not enough votes to override a filibuster or to override a presidential veto."
A veto override would require a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. Last January, after Bush vetoed a bill permitting Chinese students to remain in this country, the House voted to override, but the effort failed in the Senate.
In his speech, Mitchell cited China's surveillance of dissidents, its campaign of mandatory political indoctrination, its persecution of religious groups and new restrictions on overseas study as evidence of continuing political repression inside China.
"The hope for freedom in China is as remote today as it was 10 months ago," he said.
Mitchell also complained that China has set an increasing series of conditions that the United States must meet before Fang is permitted to leave the U.S. Embassy.
"Not only is a written confession of guilt by Fang being demanded, but other conditions have been set for our nation to meet," he said.