MFN Fiasco Exposes Need for Better China Policy

Article excerpt

PREDICTABLY, now that President Clinton has reached his decision about the extension of most-favored-nation (MFN) status for China, public and media attention to the world's most populous nation has faded. That is a shame, for far from concluding the question of how American economic and political interests relate in China, the MFN decision signals the beginning of a no less important, if less dramatic, chapter. It is critical that we resist the inclination of parties on all sides to put that decision behind us and instead seek to understand the lessons it holds.

For American human rights advocacy groups, Mr. Clinton's decision represents a shattering rejection at the hands of a president and many members of Congress supposedly on their side. No one who follows these issues can deny the massive work that dedicated people within the human rights community devoted to chronicling China's abundant human rights problems. But good intentions and hard work are no substitute for careful study of the political and social landscape here and in China or for the exercise of good judgment about what to do once the landscape has been surveyed.

The human rights community by and large misread the situation at home and abroad. It failed to discern the transparent partisan political motivation that lay behind much of the opposition to President Bush's policy of engagement voiced by Democratic members of Congress and by candidate Clinton in 1992. It was also peremptory in dismissing as self-serving apologia from people hoping to curry favor with Beijing opinions from business, academe, and other sources that differed from its own position.

By establishing a litmus test that effectively rejected people who continued to have contact with China, opponents of extending MFN spelled their own defeat, for an interest group demanding saintliness as the price of inclusion will be small. In so doing, it excluded from consideration a wealth of data about the ways in which life in China is changing and so formed its positions on a needlessly incomplete basis.

Had fuller account been taken of such data, opponents of MFN might have realized that alongside the human rights abuses they so courageously brought to public attention, China has been experiencing extraordinary change in every area of life. Far from being the Stalinist totalitarian state depicted by opponents of MFN, Beijing increasingly has difficulty exercising such normal attributes of sovereignty as collecting the central government's taxes or ensuring that its writ will run nationally - even it if continues to possess the capacity to rain episodic violence on those it views as serious political threats.

While this may be cold comfort for dissidents, it suggests the need for rethinking tactics intended to address long-standing human rights abuses and for giving attention to additional rights problems (such as the trafficking in women and children).

Business and the establishmentarian policy types who used the Council on Foreign Relations to mock the Clinton administration this spring privately harbor the view that respect for American economic rights can be fostered in China without raising the troubling question of Chinese political rights. …