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China, United States Unlikely To Agree on Human Rights

By Doyle McManus
Los Angeles Times

President Clinton's meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin this week is likely to produce agreements on Chinese arms sales and other important issues - but not on human rights, U.S. officials reluctantly concluded Monday.

In months of negotiations preparing for Jiang's arrival in Washington Tuesday evening, Clinton administration officials quietly urged China to take some visible steps toward defusing the human rights issue, a sore point in U.S.-China relations since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

U.S. aides particularly hoped that Jiang might order the release of China's two most prominent imprisoned dissidents, democracy advocate Wei Jingsheng and student leader Wang Dan.

But as the meeting approached, it became clear that Beijing would not free the two prisoners in advance and that a grand gesture during the sessions also was unlikely.

"It's almost harder to do it" while Jiang is here because China wants to avoid appearing to bend under U.S. pressure, a White House official said.

"Whatever they do, they will do by their own lights."

Clinton still hopes that the two dissidents will be released before he makes a planned visit to China in 1998, officials said.

But Clinton will not make their freedom a condition for his trip, because that would make the larger U.S.-China relationship "hostage" to their cases.

"If you believe in the principle that we believe in, of regular summits, you cannot hold the relationship hostage to any one issue," the White House official said.

Jiang, who arrived Monday for a day of rest in the restored Colonial-era city of Williamsburg, Va., did make one bow to U.S. concerns on human rights. China signed a United Nations covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, an agreement that commits Beijing to seek better living standards, working conditions and trade union rights for its people.

But China decided not to sign a similar U.N. covenant on civil rights that calls for freedom of opinion, peaceful assembly and minority rights.

The administration's disappointment in its effort to gain even modest concessions on human rights reflects a central dilemma of U.S. policy toward China.

Clinton and his aides argue that the surest way to foster such rights in China is to increase U.S. cooperation with Beijing's authoritarian regime. But in the short run, the evidence has been mixed.

Some China scholars say that a slow process of political reform is under way.

"The political reforms have, in fact, been substantial," argued Harry Harding, a professor at George Washington University who has advised the administration.

But the State Department reports that China has intensified its repression of both political dissidents and Christian religious groups.

Harding acknowledged that "the present political elite places very serious limits on political reform." In the long run, he added, significant political change may have to wait for a new generation to come to power in Beijing.

This mixed picture is a domestic political embarrassment for both Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, given that they campaigned for the White House in 1992 demanding a tough U.S. stance toward China on human rights.

Clinton threatened to revoke China's "most favored nation" trade status if Beijing did not respond to U.S. demands on human rights. But under pressure from the American business community he changed his mind in 1993.

That decision deprived the administration of a major weapon in human rights disputes and prompted U.S. officials to devise their current strategy, which rests on convincing the Chinese that political liberalization is in their own interest.

When Clinton meets with Jiang this week, aides said, he will give the Chinese leader a one-on-one version of the argument he made in a speech last week.

"Greater openness is profoundly in China's own interest. If welcomed, it will speed economic growth, enhance the world influence of China and stabilize society."

So far, China's Communist leaders have rejected most of that message, opting instead to cement their party's hold on power.

As a result, Clinton has come under criticism from an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, from House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif.