Clinton's China Two-Step

Reprinted from the Washington Post, January 17, 2000

The wondrous contradictions of the Clinton administration's China policy were on full display last week. On Monday President Clinton announced an "all-out" campaign to lobby Congress to pass permanent most-favored-nation status for China. The lobbying will be rough, with a fully mobilized American business community working as the iron fist inside the administration's velvet glove. The same day Clinton kicked off his new campaign, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue warned, on cue, that members of Congress who oppose permanent trade status for China "will find themselves in an unhappy situation with the business community."

Then on Tuesday the Clinton administration announced its intention to introduce a resolution condemning China's human rights abuses at the U.N. this March. The administration suddenly wants to shine a "spotlight" on what State Department spokesman Jamie Rubin called the "serious deterioration in [China's] human rights situation." Two years ago, the administration decided against introducing such a resolution. Last year, it waited until March to do so, intentionally too late to have any chance of serious consideration. This year's early announcement presumably gives American diplomats time to actually round up some international support for a U.N. resolution condemning China's dismal record.

Some may find the juxtaposition of the two announcements a bit odd. The Clinton administration inaugurates a big push to grant China the biggest prize in the history of U.S.-Chinese economic relations and, in the next breath, singles China out for special condemnation as a world-class violator of human rights. But there was nothing coincidental about last week's announcements. The administration's tougher public stance on China's human rights abuses is an essential component of its "all-out" campaign to win congressional approval for the trade deal. The administration has a high-stakes and high-risk battle on its hands.

The vote on permanent MFN for China will not be like the annual ritual of MFN votes in recent years, when it was practically impossible for opponents to win the veto-proof two-thirds majorities in both houses necessary to defeat renewal. This year a simple majority in either house can defeat permanent MFN and hand Clinton and Al Gore an election-year humiliation. And opponents have some other things going for them. Some members who voted to renew MFN in the past will be more reluctant to vote for permanent status for China, since doing so gives away Congress's chief lever for influencing administration policy. Big Labor, meanwhile, fresh from its "victory" at the WTO meeting in Seattle, is targeting the China deal. "We will do whatever it takes," Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa promises, and, "We will win."

The administration, therefore, has got to play a tougher game this year, but also a slicker game. It has to "address members' concerns." And if this means annoying the Chinese with a public dressing down in Geneva, so be it. The administration apparently has decided that the best strategy for winning permanent trade status for China this year will be to convince wavering members of Congress that the trade deal should be viewed as only that, a trade deal.

Clinton can't afford to let members use the trade vote to blow off steam about Chinese brutality against Falun Gong members, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and democracy activists. When the day of the vote comes, the administration needs to be able to argue that it already is addressing the human rights problem -- it is "telling it like it is" -- but it is doing so in the appropriate, international forum. We'll work over the Chinese at the U.N., Mr. Congressman; you just pay attention to Mr. Donohue here.

To be sure, the Clinton administration's new political strategy requires a sacrifice, namely, the main rationale behind its policy of "economic engagement." For years, advocates of trade with China have argued that trade itself is an antidote to Chinese oppression. The more China opens itself to American goods and services, the better the chance for democracy to bloom.

Two years ago, administration officials argued that criticizing China in international forums was precisely the wrong way to go about winning greater freedom for the Chinese people. They pointed to the Chinese government's 1998 agreement to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a great victory both for their quiet diplomacy and for their policy of economic engagement.

Now the Clinton administration implicitly acknowledges the failure of this approach. Despite the administration's continuing policy of engagement, Rubin is compelled to note that over the past year the Chinese government "intensified its crackdown on political dissent"; initiated a "campaign to suppress the Falun Gong"; "intensified controls on unregistered churches and on the political and religious expression of ethnic minority groups, especially Tibetans"; and clamped down on the press and the Internet. The administration now admits that the only thing to do is to go back to beating the Chinese over the head publicly.

So trading with China is not quite the answer, after all. As Rubin said on Tuesday, "We engage with China to advance our national interests -- as the president said yesterday, we are going to pursue the World Trade Organization issue with respect to the normal trade relations -- but that doesn't mean that we have to forgo our principles." Perhaps some day we can drop the idealistic blather and admit that trade with China is not about democracy; it's about trade.

The Clinton administration's one-two punch this week is smart politics. Many members of Congress, and especially Republicans, will pay close attention to Donohue and to their big-business contributors. Others will be impressed that the Clinton administration is doing the right thing in Geneva this year, and they won't worry about motive. Perhaps the only solace opponents of Clinton's China policy can take is that in the interest of winning congressional votes, the administration finally has smoked itself out.