China And The U.S.: A Dangerous Misunderstanding

On the eve of a crucial visit by U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, China has launched a crackdown on dissidents. China's most prominent activist, Wei Jingsheng, was detained on Mar. 4 and then banished to the provinces after dining with visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck. A total of 13 other dissidents were detained or arrested.

While it may be that the Chinese authorities were just trying to punish Shattuck for what they considered rude behavior by a guest, the roundup has produced major strains in U.S.-Chinese relations. Passing through Hong Kong on his way home from Beijing, Shattuck sounded the alarm. "Oh my God, not another one," he said when informed that another activist had been hauled off. There could be very serious consequences unless the Chinese make concessions to Christopher--as some State Dept. officials believe they will.

BASIC ERRORS? Regardless of the outcome, this series of events reveals dangerous misunderstandings between the two governments. Because the Clinton Administration is so eager to cultivate China as a major growth area for exports, it has failed to convince the Chinese that the U.S. is also serious about human rights. For their part, China's leaders have underestimated how badly their efforts to snuff out dissent would play in Washington. "It's a terrible thing to see the Chinese make basic errors in judgment," says Ian Perkins, chief economist at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. "The timing couldn't have been worse."

That's because China's crackdown comes as the annual battle on renewing its most-favored-nation trade status heats up in Washington. In order for China to keep MFN status, President Clinton has said that Beijing must make "overall, significant progress" on human rights. But under the present circumstances, the President can hardly make the case that China has met that standard.

Senior U.S. officials see themselves in a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, muses one, there is "no way" Clinton would put U.S. jobs at risk. But then he asks: "How can the U.S. not revoke MFN [if the Chinese don't ease up]? They are making the impossible inevitable."

Without MFN, tariffs would soar, pricing many Chinese exports out of the U.S. market. That has Western executives with a stake in China on edge. "I think people in the American business community are very worried," says Thomas D. Gorman, a Hong Kong-based American publisher. "They're on a collision course."

Why is China playing such a dangerous game? One problem is that Beijing has been getting confusing signals from Washington. Since the Administration began a series of high-level talks with China last September, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that to be assured of MFN status China must show progress on specific human-rights issues such as accounting for and releasing jailed dissidents and complying with a 1992 deal on prison labor. But U.S. officials also have made clear that China's fast-growing market presents mind-boggling opportunities for American business. Analysts say statements by senior Administration officials about delinking MFN and human rights have misled the Chinese. Beijing apparently believes the Administration won't jeopardize the $3 billion U.S. business has invested in China or the thousands of jobs created by orders for such items as Boeing jets or Motorola cellular phones. "If they buy 40 Boeing jets, the Chinese feel they have bought MFN," says a Western diplomat in Hong Kong.

China also has its own reasons for being unwilling to tolerate dissent. With the 89-year-old Deng Xiaoping looking increasingly frail, the power struggle in Beijing is intensifying. As a National People's Congress convenes this week, no leadership contender wants to look as if he is caving in to the U.S. Also, Chinese leaders don't think they can afford dissent while they are trying to push through radical economic reforms that will lead to closing state factories, perhaps putting employees out of work. "1994 is likely to be a difficult year because of rising prices and the real-income loss for the man in the street," says a European diplomat in Beijing. "Strikes are a very real fear."

But Wei has energized political activists in Beijing and Shanghai since his release last fall after nearly 15 years in prison. The dissidents may be using the Christopher and Shattuck visits as cover. They also seem to be allying themselves with discontented workers and peasants--something the government views as a grave threat. Three of those arrested were authors of the Peace Charter, an underground petition signed by about 350 dissidents. It calls for the National People's Congress to do everything from assuring workers the right to strike to requiring families of senior officials to publicly declare their assets as a way to fight corruption.

Despite the soured atmosphere, there's still time to mend relations. In the past, the Chinese have made narrow concessions to allow MFN to squeak by. If that's going to happen, Christopher is going to have to make his message heard in Beijing. He's off to a rocky start. Before his arrival in China, he warned that it must improve its dismal human-rights record mr risk losing MFN status. But he also announced that the Administration was lifting sanctions imposed last year on the sale of satellite technology to China. It's yet another confusing signal from Washington.

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