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Clinton's China Policy Lags on Human Rights

December 10, 1998|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — This is a defining moment for President Clinton's policy toward China. And so far, the administration is failing miserably.

China is in the midst of wrapping up an entire democracy movement. Moving in several Chinese cities at once, the regime has jailed those leaders seeking to form an opposition party. On Monday, the regime announced the first trial of one of these leaders for subversion.

"If [any Chinese political organization] is designed to advocate a multi-party system and negate the leadership of the Communist Party, then it will not be allowed to exist," explained Li Peng, the chairman of China's legislature and for years the regime's most ardent advocate of political repression.

Make no mistake: This is not your humdrum arrest of a single dissident--the sort of monthly occurrence to which Americans have become sadly inured. Rather, this is an epochal event, comparable to China's decision in 1979 to end the Democracy Wall campaign and to jail its leaders.

Back then, the Carter administration, eager to preserve China's help in the Cold War, kept quiet and did little. The disastrous result was to silence dissent in China for years and to help confer legitimacy on the rule of the Communist Party leadership.

The danger is that the Clinton administration will do likewise. Thus far, the administration has publicly objected to the Chinese arrests only at low levels, through spokesmen rather than senior officials. U.S. Ambassador James Sasser was instructed to register a protest. The administration, in short, is keeping things as quiet as possible.

After Clinton's visit to China last June, administration officials took some credit for the political opening that seemed to be unfolding there. And so the administration will equally have to take some of the blame if it sits back as China closes up again.

As so often in past decades, the relaxation of political controls in China was short-lived.

The Chinese regime timed the recent arrests perfectly. It waited until after British Prime Minister Tony Blair had visited Beijing, after Chinese President Jiang Zemin had held talks with Vice President Al Gore and after Jiang had made a long-planned trip to Japan.

Then, as soon as China's autumn diplomatic season was over, the regime pounced. It didn't hurt that the U.S. Congress was out of session either. Does anyone believe China would have done this in June while the annual renewal of its trade benefits was pending? What does this say about the downside of making these trade benefits permanent?

To be sure, administration officials can argue that the arrested dissidents were testing the limits of the regime's tolerance. That's even true. "They were pushing the envelope, as they often do," observes Columbia University professor Andrew Nathan. But what's wrong with that?

The flip side of this argument is that the administration, by saying and doing so little, is accepting and helping to perpetuate the status quo in China.

Right now, Clinton's human rights policy for China is the supreme triumph of form over substance.

The administration prides itself on getting China into dialogues. Clinton talks with Jiang. The official human rights dialogue between Washington and Beijing, which China scuttled in 1994, will be resumed next month.

But the dialogue seems empty if it serves only to give Chinese officials a forum to explain away repression. And the administration's campaign for the rule of law in China isn't worth much when Li Peng exults that under China's constitution, "the Communist Party of China is the leading force of China's revolution."

It's curious: Over the past few weeks, the Clinton administration seems to have become more timid in dealing with China than the Japanese and the Europeans.

China wanted Japan to repeat the same assurances about Taiwan that Clinton gave last summer. Japan said no. Beijing complained when Germany's new foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, met with exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng. The Germans told the Chinese to mind their own business.

The administration's tongue-tied performance is epitomized by Gore, who gave such a rousing speech on behalf of Asian democracy a few weeks ago in Malaysia. Gore attacked Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who's an enemy of American investment banks and has a record of anti-Semitism. He was a politically convenient target.

So what has Gore had to say about the roundups in China, where the repression of dissent is vastly more serious than in Malaysia? Not a word. When I inquired, a Gore spokesman told me that the administration would press the issue "in whatever manner may bring about the most positive result."

That's a pathetically weak response. But in one sense, at least, it's on the right track: It accepts the idea of judging the Clinton administration's record in combating Chinese repression not by dialogue or talk but by results. So far, we haven't seen any.

Jim Mann's column normally appears in this space every Wednesday.

Right now, Clinton's human rights policy for China is the supreme triumph of form over substance.

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