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Christopher Visit To Be Crucial to Future of China-U.S. Ties

March 10, 1994

BEIJING (AP) _ The Chinese have long attached great importance to face, or ″mianzi,″ but it is also important on the other side of the Pacific.

When Secretary of State Warren Christopher arrives this weekend, saving U.S.-China relations from disintegration may hinge on each side helping the other save political face over human rights.

Beijipng must make enough concessions on human rights so the Clinton administration can renew low-tariff trade privileges without being vulnerable to accusations it is soft on Communist China’s authoritarian rulers.

The Clinton administration must not make demands that would leave Chinese leaders vulnerable to accusations they bowed to foreign pressure over what the government insists is a domestic matter.

″I think this can be worked out to the satisfaction of both sides,″ said Gaston Sigur, a former assistant secretary of state, in a telephone interview from Maryland. ″I do believe that both sides want to have as good a working relationship as possible with the other.″

Probably so, but that’s not quite how it has appeared in the run-up to Christopher’s visit, when a Chinese police sweep of as many as 14 dissidents last week prompted him to say Beijing was headed ″in the wrong direction.″ The Chinese government responded by telling the United States to mind its own business.

Despite those strong words, the two governments may yet come up with a formula to keep the human rights dispute from crippling relations.

Defense Secretary William Perry said recently the United States dearly needs China’s support in dealing with the potential nuclear threat of North Korea.

Softening the pressure on human rights in China would ″pale in comparison with the prospect of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula,″ Perry said during his confirmation hearings in February.

The most compelling reason to keep relations on track is that neither nation wants a trade war that would be assured if Washington revoked China’s most-favored nation trading status, a move Clinton has vowed to take unless Beijing makes substantial progress in human rights.

China knows its astounding economy - now growing at 13 percent a year - would be hit hard if trade with the United States dried up.

More than $31 billion in Chinese exports went to the United States last year, according to U.S. government statistics. The loss of that market would put legions of Chinese out of work at a time when Beijing already is concerned about mounting social unrest.

China would undoubtedly retaliate if it lost MFN status, keeping U.S. exports and investment from a market of nearly 1.2 billion people.

Philip S. Carmichael, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, estimated about 175,000 high-technology jobs in the United States are tied to the Chinese market.

″We don’t think it is in the U.S. strategic interest to eliminate jobs in the United States ... and in turn potentially lock us out of the world’s largest integrated market, which China will be in the next four to five years,″ he said.

Those arguments are strong ones to a president whose main goal is to strengthen the U.S. economy. But he would be open to charges of weakness in foreign policy if he extended MFN without human rights concessions in return.

China has made a few concessions that allow U.S. officials to talk of progress. John Shattuck, the top U.S. human rights envoy, said last week that China has reduced the exploitation of prison labor, eased restrictions on emigration and considering International Red Cross contact with prisoners.

He and other U.S. officials have insisted more progress is needed, holding out the prospect of giving China permanent MFN status if more concessions are made.

Although the detentions last week seemed a step backward, the police action may have had more to do with domestic politics than foreign affairs. China typically tightens control on dissidents before the annual spring meeting of the national legislature, which opens Thursday.

Wang Dan, a student leader from the 1989 pro-democracy movement, for example, has written an open letter calling for the legislature to discuss human rights.

The Communist leadership also may be concerned that soaring inflation and rampant corruption, which helped trigger the 1989 pro-democracy protests, could lead to a new round of unrest.

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