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U.S. and China Narrowing Human Rights Differences

By Daniel Williams
The Washington Post
BEIJING

Secretary of State Warren Christopher ended his tense visit to China Monday saying that U.S.-Chinese differences on U.S. human rights demands "are narrowing somewhat."

President Clinton said in Detroit that he was "disappointed" with the results of Christopher's visit, during which Chinese leaders rejected U.S. linkage of human rights and the continuation of China's favorable trade status with the United States. After two days of gloomy reports about his meetings with Chinese leaders, Christopher told a news conference here that his talks Monday with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen were better than those over the weekend. Still, Qian told a separate news conference that the two countries would have different concepts about human rights "for a long time to come."

This theme was central to the message the Chinese hammered home to their American guests. It came up again Monday at the end of Christopher's last session with Qian, when Christopher suggested that China should arrange meetings between U.S. officials and Chinese dissidents as a display of goodwill on human rights.

Qichen's response was harsh: Such visits would rupture relations.

The exchange reflected the feeling in China's government that the United States is trying to play politics in China. This belief is a key factor in Beijing's resistance to American designs for human rights reform, U.S. officials say.

The Chinese view that Beijing, and not Washington, will set China's human rights policy was reflected in the roundup of democracy activists in the days leading up to Christopher's three-day visit. It was further reflected Monday when China freed two dissidents and eased the surveillance on others just as Christopher was leaving town. And it was evident in hard-line comments by Chinese leaders as well as the limited response to U.S. demands for concrete improvement.

Chinese leaders do not look at U.S. proposals as mere affirmations of universal rights, as Christopher described them during his visit. Rather, they are part of core debates within China that a rigid and unconfident government would prefer to mute. "Human rights goes to the heart of the political struggle in China," a senior State Department official said.

Under an executive order issued by Clinton last spring, Christopher must certify human rights improvements by June 3, or China will lose its low-tariff trade status, known as most favored nation.

Aides to Christopher argued Monday that he delivered a tough message to the Chinese on compliance. But he mixed the message with a compromise to ease future pressure on China, offering to make the annual review of trade status routine by ending Clinton's first-year practice of setting specific conditions.

After June, Washington would be content with general positive trends, a senior U.S. official said. That would mean that China's trade status would be safeguarded unless it slid back on human rights dramatically, he said.

In Washington, the State Department denied that Christopher had softened U.S. demands for human rights progress this year. And Clinton said: "Our policy is the same. We'll just have to wait and see what happens between now and June."

China still must show "overall, significant improvement" in several areas, and Qian offered small concessions. He produced a list of political prisoners and promised to take reports from American technicians on the jamming of the Voice of America, permit inspections of prison labor camps suspected of producing exports to the United States and continue talks with the International Committee of the Red Cross on opening prisons to inspections. Cases of delayed immigration requests from relatives of exiled dissidents will also be reviewed.

But it seems likely that the Clinton administration can expect little more and will have to package the Chinese concessions in a way to persuade Congress they represent significant progress.

With China on the verge of an uncertain transition from Deng's rule, tolerance for dissent is minimal. Monday, Christopher appealed to Qian to release any activists detained just before Christopher's visit.