WASHINGTON — The Clinton Administration has launched a secret, intensive diplomatic campaign to get China to make more concessions on human rights in the final weeks before the U.S. deadline for deciding whether Beijing's trade privileges in this country should be renewed, officials say.
Meanwhile in Beijing, the Chinese government early today bowed to U.S. pressure by releasing Chen Ziming, the most prominent dissident still in jail from the 1989 democracy movement, for what it said were medical reasons.
Labeled a "black hand" by the Beijing government for his leadership role in the 1989 demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, Chen, 41, is said to be suffering from high blood pressure and a skin ailment.
But his release on bail today is the latest and most significant in a series of last-minute gestures by the Chinese government in an effort to avert restrictions on its "most favored nation" trading status with the United States, its biggest export market.
In hopes of squeezing more concessions from the Beijing regime, the Administration is now trying through secret negotiations to do what Secretary of State Warren Christopher was unable to do in Beijing last March: make the Chinese regime take seriously President Clinton's oft-repeated threats to curb China's trade benefits if it fails to take concrete steps to ease its repressive policies.
In recent days, Administration officials have refused to confirm or deny reports that the President has dispatched a secret emissary to Beijing for talks with the Chinese government.
The Administration must decide by June 3 whether to renew China's trade benefits, which permit Chinese goods to be exported to the United States with the same low tariffs enjoyed by most other nations.
"We're not going to have any comment on any diplomacy that is going on," White House spokesman Tom Ross said Friday. Defending the secrecy, a senior Administration official said, "We're in the delicate last stages of this thing, and there's a fierce desire not to say anything."
Two senior officials from the Jimmy Carter Administration, White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Michel Oksenberg, Brzezinski's China expert on the National Security Council, are scheduled to land Monday in Beijing to take part in what is officially described as a conference.
Brzezinski and Oksenberg were in charge of the 1978 negotiations leading up to the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing.
In resorting to secret diplomacy with Beijing, the Administration is following essentially the same path taken by former President George Bush, whom Clinton criticized in the 1992 campaign for "coddling dictators" in China.
In the six months after China's bloody 1989 crackdown, Bush twice dispatched Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser, and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger on secret missions to Beijing. Winston Lord, now Clinton's assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, then denounced Bush for sending "fawning emissaries" to China.
Under an executive order issued by Clinton a year ago, China was supposed to make "overall significant progress" on human rights by this June if it wanted to get its trade benefits renewed for another year.
This spring, human rights groups and several Administration officials have acknowledged that China has not yet made this progress.
Before the release of Chen, the Beijing regime over the last few months appeared to take several steps backward by rearresting dissidents who had been freed, such as leading democracy activist Wei Jingsheng.
Chen was sentenced to 13 years in prison in February, 1991, on charges of conspiring to subvert the government and engaging in counterrevolutionary propaganda and agitation.
Chen's career as a dissident began in 1976 when he denounced the government in a speech in Tian An Men Square for which he was briefly jailed. He founded the "Beijing Spring" journal in 1979 but was forced to close it under official pressure.
In 1986, Chen founded the Social and Economic Research Institute along with fellow intellectual Wang Juntao.
During the 1989 democracy movement, Chen and Wang urged restraint and counseled against direct confrontation with the government. However, in its post-crackdown analysis of the Tian An Men Square events, Chen and Wang were described as the main ringleaders, or "black hands," behind the movement.
Wang, who suffered from hepatitis, was released April 23 and allowed to travel to the United States for medical treatment.
Chen's release means that the two top figures in the democracy movement still in custody have been released on the eve of Clinton's decision on renewal of trading relations. The Chinese are hoping the gestures are enough for the Clinton Administration to de-link trade and human rights issues.