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Clinton Grants China MFN, Reversing Campaign Pledge

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post

President Clinton Thursday reversed course on China and renewed its trade privileges despite what he said was Beijing's lack of significant progress on human rights.

Echoing the case made by George Bush when he was president, Clinton said he was convinced the Chinese would take more steps to improve human rights if the issue were separated from the threat of trade sanctions.

"This decision offers us the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human rights and for the advancement of our other interests with China," he said at a news conference announcing his decision to extend China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status.

To demonstrate what he stressed was his administration's continuing concern about human rights in China, Clinton said he was banning the import of Chinese munitions and taking several other small steps to support the pro-democracy cause in China.

But his action stopped well short of appeals by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for selected sanctions on some Chinese products as a way to penalize China for failing to improve human rights. Both said they would introduce legislation that continues a link between trade privileges and human rights improvements.

"I disagree with the decision," Mitchell said of Clinton's move. "This decision will confirm for the regime the success of its policy of repression on human rights and manipulation on trade." Several other Democratic senators, however, issued statements of support and said they would join Clinton in Congress in resisting legislation to alter the trade status.

Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., said that the decision reflected a key role China can play in geopolitics, specifically "maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons."

Clinton had been the subject of heavy lobbying by American business interests and his economic advisers to continue China's trade privileges. With China now the world's fastest growing economy, the United States exports $8 billion a year there, which sustains up to 150,000 American jobs. Many major American businesses see even greater potential in Chinese markets, expecting China to become a massive purchaser over the next decade of the phones, electronic gadgets and thousands of other products made in America.

"I think we have to see our relations with China within a broader context" than simply human rights, Clinton said, adding that the link between rights and trade was no longer tenable. "We have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy," he said.

Human rights groups and a strong lobby in Congress had pressed Clinton to adhere to the goal he set last year in an executive order that made renewal of China's MFN status dependent on "overall significant progress" in human rights. Clinton in his presidential campaign had sharply attacked Bush for extending trade privileges to China in the years following the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, accusing him of "coddling criminals."

But Clinton said Thursday he has had a change of heart. "Let me ask you the same question I have asked myself," he said. "Will we do more to advance the cause of human rights if China is isolated."

What the United States policy should be, he added, is "to intensify and broaden its relations" with Beijing, not isolate it. He acknowledged that the one sanction he was imposing - the ban on imports of guns and ammunition from China involving about $200 million in sales - constituted little more than a "discrete" symbol of U.S. displeasure. Most weapons are made by the Peoples Liberation Army, agent of the 1989 crackdown that set off congressional calls for revoking China's trade status.

The other measures he announced include increased broadcasts for Radio-Free Asia and the Voice of America, increased support for non-governmental organizations working on human rights in China and the development with U.S. business leaders of a voluntary set of principles for business activity in China.

Clinton's decision came after an intensive, sometimes fractious, debate within the administration over what steps to take and how. At one point, the president was leaning toward extending the trade privileges, but putting sanctions on a range of military-made products. The Treasury and Defense departments vehemently objected, and from the outset the president's economic advisers argued that trade and human rights should not be linked.

In assessing China's human rights record over the past year, Secretary of State Warren Christopher reported to Clinton earlier this week that China had made progress in allowing emigration and had begun complying with an agreement that produces investigations of the use of prison labor in making Chinese goods.

But Christopher also concluded that the Chinese had not made progress in complying with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in providing an acceptable accounting for political and religious prisoners and in treating them humanely. He also found no change in China's repression of Tibet and no end to China's jamming broadcasts by the Voice of America.