Beijing Welcomes PNTR Vote, Slams Rights Provision

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

( - Beijing Thursday welcomed the House of Representatives vote granting it permanent normal trade relations but criticized attached human rights conditions as "unacceptable" interference in its affairs.

A leading U.S.-based human rights group warned that PNTR passage should not be seen as a "quick fix" for China's serious human rights problems, and called for sustained pressure from the United States and other major trading partners to pressure Beijing to comply with its obligations.

In other reaction, commentators in Britain said President Clinton's energetic backing for PNTR had emphasized his diminishing chances for leaving a meaningful legacy as his presidency draws to a close.

The bill, passed Wednesday by 237 votes to 197, removes an annual congressional review of China's trade status.

PNTR guarantees that Chinese goods get the same low-tariff access to U.S. markets as imports from allied like Britain and Japan. Passage will ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization, probably late this year or early 2001.

But the bill passed also provides for the establishment of a bipartisan commission to monitor Beijing's human rights and worker rights record, and empowered to recommend certain sanctions.

Supporters said it would press China to embrace the free market and improve rocky relations between the two countries. Opponents cited fears of job losses, and China's poor human rights record.

The Xinhua news agency quoted Chinese Trade Ministry spokesman Hu Cusheng as saying the vote would "help the healthy and stable development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation with China on the basis of equality and mutual benefit."

But Hu called on the U.S. to "correct its wrongdoing" by dropping the human rights condition. China "expresses strong dissatisfaction" with the provision, and "reserves the right to react on the issue in the future."

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue also called the PNTR decision "wise" but said that granting the status to China had been a U.S. obligation under WTO rules.

"The bill contains articles which attempt to interfere in China's internal affairs and harm China's interests under the pretext of human rights and others," the official People's Daily quoted Zhang as saying.

She said Beijing had already made representations to the U.S. making clear it would not accept the conditions.

Taiwan, which can only enter the WTO once mainland China does, welcomed the House vote, as did Hong Kong officials, who lobbied hard in Washington for PNTR.

But the Hong Kong representatives warned that hard work would still be needed to get the vote pushed through the Senate.

"We've got to make sure the bills are the same to avoid a second vote and a possible delay ... people should remember there is always room for new amendments and political maneuvering," Chris Jackson of the HK economic and trade office in Washington told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.

Some lobbyists feared that Republicans may seek delays to pressure the administration into concessions on unrelated education, health and other legislation, the paper said.

'Don't ease up on Beijing'

Also expected to try to influence the Senate is the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called on the U.S. and other trade partners to keep up the pressure on Beijing to ensure it meets its international rights obligations.

HRW urged the Senate to strengthen the proposed rights commission by requiring an annual debate. It also called for a vote by both the House and Senate on recommendations by the commission relating to "diplomatic and economic tools."

The organization said the Senate should require the commission to base some of its staff in Beijing and in the Tibet capital, Lhasa, to improve its capacity to monitor the rights situation.

"Without these steps to increase the effectiveness of the commission, there's a risk that its impact on U.S. China policy will be minimal," said Mike Jendrzejczyk of HRW's Asia Division.

Legacy opportunities waning fast

The London Daily Telegraph Thursday noted that Clinton had been forced to enter an unconventional alliance with leaders of the same House Republican party, which sought his impeachment so vigorously.

"The importance to the president of the trade bill is that all other avenues to his recognition by posterity as a great international leader are closing fast."

The conservative daily said improving ties with Beijing was the only one of four principal targets Clinton had set himself on re-election in 1996 that seemed achievable.

Two of the other three - peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East - seemed as far off as ever. The remaining goal, NATO expansion, had been achieved, but the alliance had taken unprecedented strain over last year's Kosovo campaign, it opined.

"The only blessing of being a lame duck is that there is nothing left to lose," commented another London paper, the Times.

"After Monica, there is no such thing as embarrassment for President Clinton, nor any political cost in picking a fight.

"That is why Bill Clinton, chasing what his aides now call 'the legacy thing,' has been prepared to devote two of the last 22 weeks of his presidency to one of the most controversial policies he has ever embraced."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow