BEIJING — BEIJING -- In a rebuff to President Bush and a warning to President-elect Bill Clinton, China appears to have suspended its discussions with the United States on human rights issues, including American inquiries about specific political prisoners.
The action by Beijing halts a process that began in December 1990, when the Bush administration hailed the talks as a sign of progress on human rights following the violent suppression of the democracy movement in June 1989.
The dialogue on rights was never especially productive, but it gave American diplomats and visiting officials a basis for raising inquiries about specific political prisoners. These on-again, off-again discussions, about broad human rights topics and individual cases, sometimes drew minimal Chinese responses and occasionally led to real improvements in people's lives.
For all the frustrations, the discussions meant that China at least acknowledged that human rights were a valid topic of discussion. Now, that much seems to be in jeopardy.
Mr. Clinton sharply criticized China for human rights abuses during the presidential campaign. Since the election, he has eased up a little on that criticism, but indicated that he would continue to take a tougher line on the issue than the Bush administration.
In effect, then, the Beijing authorities were laying down a challenge to Mr. Clinton as he and his advisers fashion a China policy. Their action also comes as disagreements are expected in coming months on trade and other issues.
The Chinese approach in the wake of the American election is still being developed, however, and may permit discussions about human rights with legislators and others not part of the administration.
In a significant step, China is welcoming five senators next month for a visit in which human rights concerns are certain to be raised.
The Chinese decision now seems to be a response to Mr. Bush's announcement in September that the United States would permit the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Beijing's adversary, the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan. The Beijing government was outraged by the sale, which appeared to violate American pledges, and some diplomats expect further retaliatory action.
The United States is not without leverage. Beijing, for instance, is worried that if it reacts too strongly, it will lose its low-tariff access to the American market, known as most-favored-nation status. Mr. Clinton has said that he favors linking China's trade with its human rights situation, but much will depend on how this principle is drafted into legislation on extending this trading status.
A Western diplomat explained: "You're talking about the U.S. taking 30 percent of their exports, and their exports to the U.S. are growing 40 percent this year. And they're counting on this to continue to grow. It's something that their entire reform package is based on."