Liberty in China loses out to lure of business

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AS American firms sealed dollars 4.7bn ( pounds 3.1bn) of new business with China in just two days, US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown yesterday declared himself 'exhilarated'. But despite the relentless optimism surrounding the trade mission to China, Peking yesterday offered Washington only limited moves over human rights.

Flanked by some of the 24 chief executive officers he has brought with him to China, an ebullient Mr Brown announced the renewal of the bilateral human rights dialogue between Washington and Peking. Discussions would resume when the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, visited the US at the end of next month. The development 'spoke volumes to the wisdom of the policies that President Clinton has pursued', claimed Mr Brown. In May, President Clinton renewed China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status and severed the link between commercial policy and human rights issues.

US officials later played down Mr Brown's view that resuming the human rights dialogue represented significant progress. The most recent meeting between Chinese officials and John Shattuck, the assistant US secretary of state with responsibility for human rights, was in March when the US envoy incurred Peking's wrath by holding discussions with a leading dissident Wei Jingsheng. However, the bilateral talks had never been suspended, officials said.

Western diplomats in Peking yesterday said China's agreement on talks was a cosmetic move to help the Clinton administration counter some charges that human rights concerns have been sidelined in the scramble for business in China. They pointed out that even when talks were in progress, little headway was made over US demands for an accounting of political prisoners and other key human rights issues.

The rhetoric surrounding Mr Brown's visit is geared to the US's new policy of commercial engagement. Speaking to the US-China Business Council, Mr Brown went as far as to say that the US had sent substantive signals 'that China's long history is deserving of respect and even deference that she has not always received'.

Such words raise fears among human rights campaigners that China now holds the initiative. Mr Brown, who yesterday said he has held 'full and complete discussion on human rights issues' with senior Chinese officials, fell into line with Peking's preference that the substance of any such talks remain private. Since MFN renewal, more than a dozen of China's best-known dissidents, including Wei Jingsheng, have been detained, but Mr Brown has made no public mention of this fact during his mission.

There has also been a lack of detail about the business successes. Last night, it was still not clear what proportion of the dollars 4.7bn new deals represented firm contracts rather than letters of intent or memoranda of understanding. Nor could US officials say how much in concessionary loan packages and 'tied aid' had been provided by the US Import-Export Bank to ensure that the US companies clinched their deals.

Scepticism had no place on Mr Brown's agenda yesterday. Asked about the big differences of opinion that still exist over the timing and terms of China's re-entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Commerce Secretary said: 'You have to be a pretty negative person to be looking for a cloud today.'

Nevertheless, his Chinese counterpart, Wu Yi, warned on Monday that if China was blocked from rejoining Gatt, it would not stick to previous trade agreements. President Jiang Zemin yesterday told Mr Brown that Sino-US relations were 'in a crucial stage that will inherit the past and usher in the future'.

(Photograph omitted)