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Chinese Dissidents Find Freedom In Business



'I firmly believe that business is the ultimate force for democratic change in China. Economic expansion is teaching people they can have a better life. Everyone is a capitalist in China now."

A few bons mots from your Chinese-American Chamber of Commerce? No, these are the words of Li Lu, an exiled Tiananmen Square student leader. Li is getting both a law degree and an MBA at Columbia University. Many of the students who protested in 1989 are now entrepreneurs in Guangdong province, where a huge new market economy is being built. Yuppie greed, Chinese-style? Not exactly. "You have freedom in business in China," says Li.

When Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher arrives in Beijing, he should bear in mind that many of the best and brightest of China's new generation are seeking their freedom as well as their fortunes in China's booming market economy.

The "in-your-face" detention of 14 dissidents right before Christopher arrives in Beijing to discuss human rights and renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status is a clear affront to the U.S. Revoking MFN is the obvious response. That would choke off over 90% of Chinese exports and cost China most of its foreign exchange earnings. Of course, Boeing Co. and other U.S. corporations would also be hit.

But the greatest penalty would fall on the most democratic elements within China--the young ex-radicals and the millions of others building new lives in business. The drive for rule of law and freedom of information is greatest among the players in the market economy. The greatest status symbol in Shanghai is the cellular phone. Despite government efforts to crack down on satellite dishes, the flow of information along the coast is virtually free today. One of China's most celebrated dissidents, Wang Dan, even carries a beeper.

Foreign investors are calling for the creation of a legal system with binding contracts, property rights, and courts to adjudicate disputes. These are precisely what the political dissidents seek in their quest for greater human rights.

China's rulers fear losing control to a rising middle class. Locking up a handful of dissidents is their desperate way of holding back the tides of change. The Clinton Administration should side with the business revolutionaries in China. Revoking MFN won't do this.

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