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China: Analysis From Washington -- Trading In Dissidents

Washington, 2 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Beijing's release of a dissident in advance of a U.S. Congressional vote on giving China permanent trade access to the United States highlights a troubling asymmetry in relations between dictatorships and democracies.

Dictatorships almost always can get credit with democracies for releasing someone who should never have been arrested in the first place. But democracies almost never can count on a permanent change in the behavior of dictatorships on the basis of the release of a single individual.

Indeed, precisely because democracies tend to focus on individuals and will invariably welcome any such release as a step forward, they virtually if entirely unintentionally invite dictatorships to arrest more high-profile activists who can then be "released" for political profit.

On Saturday, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy said that the Chinese authorities had released Chen Lantao, a democracy activist who has been in prison for "anti-revolutionary" activity since his arrest after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Beijing gave no reason for this action, but its timing suggests that it is related both to a visit to China by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and to an upcoming vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on giving the Peoples Republic of China permanent normal trading status with the United States.

Such status would give China a permanent right to the most favorable tariff arrangements for goods sold to the United States. Moreover, it would eliminate the current requirement that the U.S. administration get annual congressional authorization for what used to be called "most favored nation" treatment.

There are powerful economic and political arguments on both sides of the debate, and the vote in the U.S. House is expected to be very close. Consequently, both sides are using all the arguments they can find to press their case.

Opponents of the accord frequently point to China's sorry record on human rights, an issue which still has wide resonance among many Americans who believe that U.S. foreign policy should have a moral dimension in addition to commercial and geopolitical ones.

As a result, advocates of the agreement, including Beijing, the U.S. Administration and many business groups, argue that the human rights situation is improving as evidenced by Chen Lantao's release and that a further expansion of trade between China and the United States will further advance that process.

As the debate continues in the run-up to the vote now scheduled for the week of May 22-26, China is likely to release more such dissidents in an effort to improve its public image and thus provide support for the arguments of its supporters in the United States.

Indeed, the Chinese government can be certain that the American media will be full of stories during this period about such steps forward. On the one hand, such stories will reflect the optimism of democracies that the future will be better than the past.

And on the other, they will be the product of the widespread view that trade will inevitably transform state-controlled economies into privately owned ones, that private ownership will inevitably be competitive, and that competitive markets will inevitably produce democracies.

The historical record provides some evidence for this logical chain, but it also shows that there have been exceptions as well. Sometimes trade has strengthened dictatorships at least for the short term and reduced the pressure on them to liberalize.

But precisely because dictatorships like the one in Beijing understand this line of thought, they are certain to exploit it.

China's release of Chen Lantao and probably other dissidents in the days ahead is clearly designed to affect the debate over the merits of normal trading relationships between the US and China.

The real question and the one the two sides in this debate are certain to join is whether Beijing's release of a few human rights activists who should never have been arrested in the first place represents a fundamental change of policy or only a short-term tactic that Beijing can quickly and easily reverse after the vote.