The Problem with MFN Human Rights Questions Must Not Be Limited to China's Trade Status

Article excerpt

WHEN China's President Jiang Zemin told United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher several weeks ago that "you cannot become a fat man on only one meal," he was not just showing off his knowledge of Chinese aphorisms. He was sending a distinct message to the US, which neither the government nor the business community has yet understood. They remain embroiled in the debate over linking human rights improvements to the granting of most-favored-nation (MFN) status. The proper response to Mr. Jiang's truism is neither to despair nor to beat a hasty retreat from our commitment to human rights. It is to encourage China to adopt a steady diet of many small meals that will gradually improve its people's health. Perhaps a few recipes are in order.

Our approach to China must recognize that the Chinese themselves are divided over human rights. Often this division is identified with an ideological split; it is actually more complex.

The US State Department's commendable focus on the harassment and imprisonment of dissidents may, with the best of intentions, have embroiled the US in an internal political struggle between pro- and anti-communist forces, in which the dissidents are a lightening rod.

But the call for observance of human rights need not be mixed up with an ideological battle. The US must show the Chinese government, in public actions and private diplomacy, that its concerns are identical with many of those expressed by respected "mainline" figures within China itself.

A September, 1991, edition of the People's Public Security News, an official newspaper, described the practice of torture to extract confessions as "a stubborn illness that has not yet seen a recovery." In a 1989 publication of Zhengfa Luntan (Political and Law Journal), a criminologist said, "There are quite a lot of legal scholars who think that the system of shelter and investigation {a type of detention} should be abolished {because} the Criminal Procedure Law has not given the Public Security organs the authority to exercise this power."

Building on critiques such as these, the US government should press the Chinese to abolish the widespread practice of torture: severe beatings, the suspension of prisoners whose arms have been tied behind their backs, the application of electric batons to naked bodies and women's private parts. Torture is prohibited in Chinese law and China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture. No government can lose face by enforcing its own laws and international obligations. …