24 May 2000 (Newsroom) -- The United States House of Representatives approved a China trade bill on Wednesday that has divided human rights and religious freedom advocates. The House voted 237-197 to grant permanent normal trade relations to the communist nation, taking the place of Most Favored Nation (MFN) status, which required an annual review of China's adherence to international standards. The Senate is expected to approve a similar pact in early June.
The bill grants China the same low tariffs and benefits given to most other U.S. trading partners and opens the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Organized labor sided with human rights activists who believe the U.S. should not give up the annual MFN status review, which was designed to pressure China to improve its treatment of workers, dissidents, and religious believers. Supporters of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), in contrast, argue that the new trade pact will accelerate economic reform, benefiting U.S. companies, but also fostering political reform and improvement of China's human rights situation.
Members of Congress evoked the names of religious clerics, such as Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and Protestant evangelist Billy Graham, to bolster their arguments in favor of the bill in floor debates on Wednesday. Following a trade agreement between the European Union and China last week, the Dalai Lama declared that "it is absolutely wrong to isolate China."
Prominent Chinese dissident Dai Qing argued that human rights issues cannot be properly addressed until China's state monopoly is broken up. "To do that we need a freer market and the competition mandated by the WTO," he told the Washington Post before the vote.
Other well-known dissidents, however, such as Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu, side with religious liberty advocates who think the deal sends the wrong message to China. Nina Shea, a member of an independent panel commissioned by the U.S. to monitor religious freedom, shares that view. "China attaches a lot of importance to symbolism," she told Newsroom. "They will see it as a signal that the U.S. doesn't care about religious freedom and human rights problems in China at a time when we've seen perhaps the worst year since the Cultural Revolution" for religious believers. Shea is director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, D.C.
Shea noted that she was speaking in her role as a member of the U.S. International Religious Freedom Commission, since Freedom House has not taken a position on the trade agreement. Other private groups that advocate religious freedom, such as the Family Research Council (FRC), spoke out against the bill. An FRC rally at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday illustrated the unusual coalition of union, environmental, liberal human rights, and conservative religious activists united against the trade pact.
In its first report, the International Religious Freedom Commission recommended earlier this month that Beijing should not receive permanent trade status unless it meets certain conditions. The panel said China should release its religious prisoners, open an ongoing dialogue with Washington on religious freedom, and approve the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.
Shea says that persecution by the Chinese government against Catholics, Protestants, Tibetan Buddhists, and the members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement rose dramatically in 1999 and continued unabated throughout the congressional debates over the trade deal. "It's a dire situation for religious freedom," Shea said. "In the shadow of all that, the U.S. gives China permanent trade status, meaning it gives up its power for any meaningful review of human rights in China. It will be seen and touted by China as a reward, and it will be demoralizing for religious believers."
Joseph Kung, director of a Connecticut-based monitor of underground Catholics in China, agrees that the trade deal exacerbates a declining situation for religious believers who refuse to place their activities under state control. "We pray for the best, but the evidence is pointing to the wrong direction," Kung told Newsroom. "I think this country has become very naive to think that China will improve human rights through a trade deal."
Kung said that the government is forcing underground Catholics to register with the state-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association. Many who refuse have had their electrical power cut, some have lost jobs, and some have been arrested. "It's unbelievable the pressure that they are under," said Kung, of the Cardinal Kung Foundation. "This trade agreement is another way of condoning the Chinese government's human rights policy and I think that the government will increase this pressure."
In a statement, Amnesty International's U.S. branch also expressed skepticism about the trade pact's ability to affect human rights. "Although we have been promised that a policy of 'constructive engagement' will benefit human rights in China, there is little recognition for the rule of law in China and the human rights situation remains bleak," the group said.
Shengde Lian, a leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest who is now with the U.S.-based lobbying group the Free China Movement, argues that increased trade has not promoted democracy and PNTR status only boosts the ruling Communist Party.
Mike Jendrzejczyk, director of Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Watch Asia, cautions anyone who thinks PNTR is "a quick fix for China's human rights problems," including religious freedom. "When China becomes a member of the WTO, the U.S. and its partners will have to continue putting pressure on them," he told Newsroom. "But it's not clear to me how the administration intends to do that. The White House has described trade itself almost as a human rights policy."
Jendrzejczyk believes that MFN had less effect since President Clinton de-linked it with human rights in 1994. "MFN had only been useful in keeping a spotlight on human rights, so we do need something more effective to replace it," he said.
Rep. Sander M. Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, proposed a provision in the trade bill that establishes a commission to monitor human rights in China. The panel could recommend sanctions in line with WTO standards, such as a cessation of U.S. Export-Import Bank support to China. The House International Relations Committee also could pass legislation based on the commission's recommendations. China has criticized the proposed commission as an interference in its internal affairs.
"The commission could be helpful but only if it is greatly strengthened," Jendrzejczyk said. Human Rights Watch recommends that the panel place senior staff in Beijing and Tibet. "Most importantly, the law should require a vote every year on the commission report; otherwise, human rights and other related issues will be marginalized and Congress members will only be paying attention to trade."
Jendrzejczyk believes that an agreement could be worked out to place U.S. monitors in China, though he notes that Beijing denied a similar request made by the International Religious Freedom Commission.
The Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy has not taken a position on the trade bill, but vice president Alan Wisdom says his group questions the "assertion that economic openness automatically brings greater freedom and civil liberties." It has happened in many cases, Wisdom said, but there are examples of countries, such as Chile under General Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, which had an open economy.
Wisdom also notes an increase in repression of religious believers in China, which he thinks is an official policy China's communist rulers have adopted out of political necessity in order to survive. "I cannot imagine that mere economic advantage would alter that policy," Wisdom said. "In the long term there may be an effect but it is not clear how that could play out."
China expert Michael Oksenberg of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University believes, nevertheless, that over the long run the trade deal will help make China a more "humanely governed" land.
In the meantime, though, one of the vast nation's more prosperous areas of free market development has become the scene of a crackdown on unofficial religious activity. In the southern province of Guangdong, authorities recently closed numerous house churches and arrested at least 13 leaders. Human rights groups say that Guangzhou-based evangelist Li Dexian, who has been arrested frequently over the past eight months, was tortured and beaten during a recent incarceration. An official of Guangdong's Religious Affairs Bureau confirmed that an investigation of local religious groups was under way.
Freedom House says that China has joined Cuba in an attempt to strip the group and other U.N.-accredited non-governmental groups of their official status. Freedom House claims that dictatorships are angered by groups that expose rights violations at U.N. forums. China charged Freedom House with violating regulations governing non-governmental groups at the recently concluded session of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Freedom House denies the charges, noting that China led a similar campaign in 1995 that resulted in the blocking of Freedom House's credentials.
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