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Hong Kong Leaders Urge Congress Not to Tie Human Rights and Trade

By Paul Blustein and John E. Yang
The Washington Post

Hong Kong's leaders have warned congressional Republicans that GOP proposals to use trade privileges as leverage to protect human rights in the colony would threaten its economic livelihood.

GOP lawmakers said the objections have helped cause House leaders to re-evaluate their plans.

In letters sent this week to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other GOP lawmakers, Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten hailed as "extremely welcome" congressional support for the preservation of civil liberties in Hong Kong after its July 1 reversion from Britain to China. But Patten strenuously objected to the proposals, backed by Gingrich, to renew China's trading privileges for less than a full year to maintain pressure on Beijing over the issue.

Such proposals "would jeopardize rather than reinforce (Hong Kong's) way of life," Patten said, because uncertainty over U.S.-China trade would inflict a serious blow on the economy of Hong Kong, a major gateway for China's global commerce.

Patten, a British politician, has frequently infuriated Beijing with his outspoken demands for democracy in Hong Kong.

"For the people of Hong Kong there is no comfort in the proposition that if China reduces their freedoms, the United States will take away their jobs," Patten wrote in a letter to Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. A nearly identical letter was sent to Gingrich, according to sources familiar with the letters.

Gingrich has said that a six-month extension of China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status - instead of the one-year extensions that have been approved in the past - would be an "appropriate signal" to underscore U.S. concern over whether China will permit Hong Kong to maintain its free-wheeling way of life.

The statement was part of an effort by Gingrich to show that he is willing to be tougher than the Clinton administration on the broad issue of human rights in China.

Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., has called for extending China's MFN status for just three months, and House Republican Conference Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has been developing a proposal for a six-month renewal. Any further extension would be contingent on President Clinton's determination that China has kept its commitments to preserve rights in Hong Kong.

But GOP leaders are reassessing their stance, because of the complaints from Hong Kong and from U.S. executives.

The proposals for shorter-than-normal MFN extensions "are history," predicted Dreier, an MFN proponent. "This letter (from Patten) pretty well takes the wind out of the sails of those who believe that a shortened time frame for MFN would be beneficial to Hong Kong."