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China's gestures of liberty scrutinized, with U.S. trade privileges at stake


BEIJING -- Former Tiananmen Square protest leader Wan Dan is free -- free to see friends, to enjoy his collection of Chinese rock 'n' roll tapes, to greet foreign visitors at his apartment door with a smile across his baby-smooth face.

But Mr. Wang is not free to say what's on his mind.

"I must be very careful how I speak," he says. "I do not want to give the Chinese government any excuse to say I'm trying to overthrow it. I cannot talk about politics and economics. I'm not afraid of jail, but I would really like not to go back."

Mr. Wang, 24, was regarded as one of the most thoughtful leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing. He spent more than 3 1/2 years in prison until he was paroled in February, about four months early.

His early release from jail was portrayed by the Chinese government as an act of leniency. Along with other actions, it could be viewed in the West as a sign of China's progress on human rights.

But Mr. Wang's caution about freely speaking -- a right outlined in China's constitution -- reflects in a small way how far China must go before it meets even its own professed standards of civil liberties.

Assessing China's changing and mottled human-rights picture is only one of the complexities facing President Clinton as he must decide by June 3 whether and how to renew for another year China's most-favored-nation trade standing with the United States.

Improvements in China's trade practices, its weapons sales and its treatment of Tibet are also among the long list of demands that many in Congress want linked to extending the favorable trade status.

Being a "most favored nation" allows Chinese imports to enter the United States under the same low tariffs as most other nations. It enables China to earn billions of dollars by selling its exports relatively cheaply in the United States, its largest overseas market.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton slammed President Bush for renewing the favorable status without any conditions in order to maintain U.S. influence with China. Once elected, however, the new president put China on the back burner. What he will decide is not clear.

Last week, the president said that he did not want to "isolate" China and that it had made some "encouraging moves" in recent weeks. But he also has signaled an unwillingness to buck congressional attempts to pressure China by attaching conditions to the favorable trade standing, beginning next year.

And reports from Washington last week that China had been shipping missiles to Pakistan -- in violation of its arms-control pledges to the United States -- are likely to make it even harder for Mr. Clinton to avoid taking a relatively tough stance.

China rejects conditions

The stakes in the decision go far beyond maintaining the low tariffs on Chinese imports. China repeatedly has stressed that the favorable trade status is the "cornerstone" of its relationship with the United States and that it cannot accept any conditions ** on its renewal.

Conditional renewal might spark not only a Sino-U.S. trade war, but also a sharp deterioration of political relations with the world's largest nation just as it is rising as a major economic power.

As a Chinese magazine, Outlook Weekly, warned last week, "Any mishandling of the issue by the U.S. would . . . force Beijing to make a strong response."

Most likely to emerge from Washington is some sort of highly nuanced compromise between the carrot of unconditional renewal and the stick of attaching conditions.

For the president, the shape of this compromise may depend in part on the assessment of Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord, who plans to visit here early this week.

"Shunning China is not an alternative," Mr. Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China, said in his March confirmation hearing before a Senate committee. "We need both to condemn repression and preserve links with progressive forces, which are the foundation of our longer-term ties.

"Our policy challenge therefore is to reconcile our need to deal with this important nation with our imperative to promote international values."

Over the next few weeks, Mr. Clinton will be getting plenty of advice on how to meet this challenge, as lobbyists on all sides of the trade issue go into overdrive.

Chinese purchasing missions to the United States recently have ordered more than $1 billion worth of airplanes, cars and oil equipment. These purchases are aimed at countering U.S. concerns about its rapidly growing trade deficit with China and at reminding the United States that 150,000 U.S. jobs depend on its exports to China.

Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten visited President Clinton last week to stress that 70,000 jobs in the British colony and perhaps half its annual economic growth hinged on good Sino-U.S. trade relations.

On the other hand, in a high-profile move, U.S. blue-jean-maker Levi Strauss & Co. announced last week that it would phase out its subcontracted production in China because of concerns over the country's human-rights abuses.

But many other large U.S. companies -- now greatly increasing their presence in China -- are stressing the growing importance of the Chinese market for the U.S. economy. They often argue that more trade, not trade sanctions, is the best way to change China.

The core of the question facing Mr. Clinton -- particularly on human rights -- is whether China's progress in the past year is politically sufficient for Washington to respond with more of a carrot than a stick. The question is far from simple, to a great degree because the human rights picture here is so mixed.

In the past year, China has released Mr. Wang and some other prominent political and religious dissidents from jail. It has allowed other activists to leave for the West. It now talks with other countries about human rights, talks it once rejected.

But at least several thousand political prisoners remain jailed here. Torture is allegedly widespread in China's penal system. Religion and ethnic nationalism are strictly controlled, particularly where they are intertwined as in Tibet.

And arbitrary arrest remains a real possibility for opponents of the Communist Party or the government -- as a veteran dissident, Qin Yongmin, recently discovered when he was detained here for merely trying to organize opposition to Beijing's bid to host the 2000 Olympics.

Niches of freedom

At the same time, with the acceleration of China's free-market economic reforms, the party generally is moving out of the daily lives of most Chinese so long as they don't challenge its ultimate control. The result: More Chinese think more freely, but they still can't act on their political beliefs.

"The human rights situation here is the most misunderstood thing about China overseas," says a Beijing-based Western diplomat. "You cannot call this place totalitarian. China is a police state. It is brutal. But people here are now able to carve out niches of relative freedom for themselves independent of the party -- as long as these niches don't threaten the party."

Mr. Wang now knows better than to test the limits of his narrow niche of freedom.

When he was first released in February, he openly expressed his view that there had not been much improvement in human rights in China since 1989.

But his outspokenness prompted public security agents to order him to leave Beijing for southern China on a "vacation" for two weeks during the annual meeting of China's legislature in March -- to make sure he did not stir up any trouble.

Now all he'll say about the possibility that Mr. Clinton might condition the most-favored-nation renewal on human rights improvements is this: "If he does it, I could understand it. . . . He would have good reason. . . . If I say it more clearly, I would get into trouble."

Mr. Wang wants to resume his studies at Beijing University -- interrupted at the end of his freshman year by the Tiananmen protests -- but the school has rejected his application. He sits in his tiny bedroom at his family's apartment, reading newspapers and educating himself with books on modern history.

His goal remains to work for democratic changes in China, and he professes optimism that these changes may not be so far in the future. But his most pressing concern is a rumor that authorities intend to kick him out of China.

Many Tiananmen-era dissidents have left China, including some who illegally fled the country. But Mr. Wang says, "I definitely don't want to leave China. I want to stay to change things in China. Even if I'm the only one left, I'll stay here."

Wherever he is on June 4 -- the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and, coincidentally, one day after the deadline for Mr. Clinton's trade decision -- Mr. Wang says he'll stage a 24-hour fast.

"I have fasted on this day the last three years in prison," he says. "I will fast on that day for the rest of my life."

Mr. Wang's fast will honor the hundreds of pro-democracy protesters who were killed by the Chinese military near Tiananmen Square in 1989. Televised to the world, this brutal attack first raised the issue of China's human-rights abuses for many Americans.

For many, it still symbolizes Chinese repression, the issue at the heart of the U.S. trade debate.

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