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U.S., China Trade Embittered Words on Human Rights : Foreign policy: Beijing 'will never accept' right to dissent, Premier Li tells Christopher. Secretary of state's mission dissolves into economic threats, name-calling.

March 13, 1994|JIM MANN and RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BEIJING — Secretary of State Warren Christopher's human rights mission to Beijing fell apart Saturday as senior Chinese and U.S. officials let loose a stunning torrent of vituperation against each other over China's recent harassment of dissidents.

"China will never accept the United States' human rights concept," Chinese Premier Li Peng, one of the principal architects of the deadly 1989 crackdown at Tian An Men Square, told Christopher during a 40-minute lecture Saturday afternoon, according to a Chinese spokesman. "History has already proven that it is futile to apply pressure against China."

Li also bluntly threatened that "the United States will lose its share of the big China market" if the Clinton Administration withdraws Beijing's trading privileges in the United States because of human rights disputes.

For his part, the usually mild-mannered secretary of state was quoted by his top aides as having told Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen, after four hours of frosty talks that included a noontime meal of scallops and Peking duck, "I wish the meeting had been as good as the lunch."

Never in the 23 years since then-National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger made his groundbreaking trip to Beijing have officials of the United States and China engaged in such a bitter and public display of name-calling on a high-level visit.

One of Christopher's aides, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Winston Lord, accused Chinese officials of displaying "chutzpah" and an "Alice in Wonderland" mentality. And Christopher's spokesman, Mike McCurry, said Saturday's meetings were "the chilliest I've ever had."

Even as the meetings took place, Chinese security forces continued a series of actions aimed at harassing both democracy advocates and any foreign correspondents who might disseminate the dissidents' messages.

Several prominent dissidents were asked to leave town during Christopher's weekend visit, which coincides with the annual meeting of the National People's Congress. Others found their homes surrounded by Public Security Bureau police.

Several foreign reporters who tried to visit the dissidents at their homes were detained by police for supposed traffic violations.

Two American reporters, Nick Driver of United Press International and Matt Forney of Newsweek, were held for six hours in the recreation room of a western Beijing apartment complex where they had gone in an attempt to meet with dissident labor activist Liu Nianchun.

Christopher telephoned the two reporters at their offices after they were released. A correspondent from the Netherlands was also arrested Saturday, according to a fellow Dutch reporter.

The secretary of state came to Beijing to see if the human rights climate was improving. An executive order signed by President Clinton requires Christopher to make sure there is "overall significant progress" in a number of human rights areas before recommending an annual renewal of China's low-tariff trade benefits in the United States. The benefits would otherwise expire in July.

The Christopher visit has been marked by some of the tightest security seen in the Chinese capital since the democracy movement of 1989. Police security was particularly intense in the eastern Beijing diplomatic quarter surrounding the U.S. Embassy and the residence of U.S. Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy.

In the two weeks leading up to the Christopher visit and the opening of the People's Congress session Thursday, major Chinese cities have been marked by a nervousness that reflects growing concern about China's direction after the death of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Deng, 89, is in failing health, and the anticipation of a succession battle following his death has spawned several pessimistic reports about China's ability to hold together in the post-Deng era.

Some foreign analysts said they believe the Chinese regime decided upon a show of force before and during Christopher's visit because it believed some dissidents, individually or through some underground organization, hoped to use the trip for the first serious challenge to the regime since the Tian An Men upheavals.

At the center of the furor between the Chinese and American governments was a meeting in Beijing two weeks ago between China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, and Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck. Soon afterward, Chinese security forces detained Wei and several other dissidents for short periods of time.

Wei, who was released from jail last September after serving 14 1/2 years of a 15-year prison sentence, is the author of a famous wallposter called "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy."

In it, he criticized Deng for failing to end the dictatorship of the Communist Party over political life in China. The reference was a direct slap at Deng's vaunted program of four modernizations to improve China.

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