WASHINGTON -- George Bush could be forgiven if he is down in Houston laughing up his sleeve at President Clinton's continuing embarrassment at the hands of the Chinese. As was the case earlier with policy on both Bosnia and Haiti, the president has discovered that the campaign ridicule he heaped on Bush for kowtowing to the Chinese has come back to haunt him.
In the heat of 1992 it was easy for candidate Clinton to scorn Bush for failing to take a tough line toward China after the massacre of young dissidents in 1989. And the Republican president probably deserved it. He was the one, after all, who sent a secret delegation to Beijing almost before the smoke had cleared from Tiananmen Square.
But now we have the spectacle of the Democratic president backing and filling on the question of whether to extend "most favored nation" (MFN) trade status for China -- even after the leadership in Beijing has made a public show of contempt for threats by the United States by, first, making a point of detaining dissidents just before and during the visit to Beijing of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and, second, publicly rejecting the validity of anyone's questioning China's record on human rights.
The first sign of the president's willingness to back off was the announcement that the United States might use more general rather than specific standards to measure whether China had made any progress in reducing abuses of human rights. It was obvious that such a vague standard would make it easier to discover some amorphous improvement in China's record.
Then Clinton added the other day that "our policy is what [it] has been, that human rights are important but that other issues are important, too."
Those "other issues" are, of course, economic. A failure to renew China's MFN status would mean American consumers wouldn't be able to buy so many of those cheap imported goods produced in too many cases by what amounts to slave labor -- goods popular enough to give China a $20 billion balance-of-trade surplus against the United States, second only to that enjoyed by Japan.
fTC Then there is the other side -- the vision of this enormous market in China that might be foreclosed to American investors and entrepreneurs if there were a trade war. If they don't get in on the ground floor, U.S. companies argue, the Europeans will be there first and make all the good deals. Moreover, there is some validity to the companion argument that long-term efforts to build economic relationships with China eventually will produce more progress on human rights.
These economic considerations are precisely the same ones that allowed George Bush to rationalize ignoring the performance of a Chinese government still functioning at levels equivalent to the worst days of the Cold War. And they are indeed serious factors in the decision on MFN.
But Clinton was supposed to be different -- a Democrat, albeit a "new Democrat," and as such someone committed to the principle of an element of human rights in foreign policy. What the behavior of the Chinese leaders this month has demonstrated is that they don't believe a word of it -- and apparently have little fear of losing the lucrative market they enjoy in the United States today. They got away with the diplomatic equivalent of whacking Warren Christopher in the mush with a cream pie.
The pattern of the Clinton record on these continuing foreign policy problems is clear. He talked big about Bosnia, Haiti and China as a candidate, then began to make the practical decisions for which he had taxed Bush so heavily.
There is good reason for such practicality in such circumstances. It has been obvious all along, for example, that the American people are not prepared to spend heavily in American lives in the former Yugoslavia.
What is more difficult to swallow is all the hypocrisy that now seems to be a part of U.S. policy toward China. If we are going to let them get away with anything they want because of the economic imperatives, it is time to stop preaching about human rights in presidential election campaigns.