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Time to Lay Down the Trade Weapon

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1994.


Many of us shared President Clinton's dilemma regarding trade with and human rights in the People's Republic of China; he was in a no-win position. His campaign promises were in direct conflict with a responsible reaction to important strategic factors. In my opinion, he made a correct and courageous choice to continue China's most-favored-nation status. I first visited China as a young sub-marine officer, operating with Allied ships along the coast in the springtime of 1949, during the last few months that forces of Chiang Kai-shek controlled the major seaports.

From the deck of our ship moored in the harbors of Shanghai and Tsingtao (now Qingdao), we could see the campfires of Mao Zedong's forces in the hills. I developed a lifetime interest in China.

As President, I inherited a dormant and timid U.S. policy based on the Shanghai communique of 1972 that acknowledged there was only one China but, because of the influence of Republican conservatives and the Taiwan lobby, failed to say which one. I initiated secret talks designed to normalize relations with China, which culminated in the announcement of mutual diplomatic recognition, effective on the first day of 1979. With China's tremendous influence in Asia and its immeasurable potential as a trade partner, I saw this decision as beneficial to our country and its policies.

Since leaving office, I have visited various parts of China, including Tibet, and have observed the remarkable opening of the society as far as free enterprise is concerned, with increased freedom for people to move from one place to another and to make economic decisions. I have had numerous discussions, mostly fruitless, with Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders about extending similar political rights. Their response has been that they also honor human rights, but with emphasis on the rights of every citizen to a home, employment, health care and an education.

China's leaders are not yet willing to accept the risks of political destabilization that became evident to them at the "democracy wall," where activists posted criticisms of the government, and at Tian An Men Square with the massive student demonstrations. The government's excessively harsh reaction was a tragic mistake that brought on continuing confrontation with the United States.

It is not inconsistent with my role as a human-rights advocate to believe that political freedoms will be encouraged best in China by maintaining harmonious relations between our countries. Perhaps contrary to the expectations of Chinese leaders, economic freedoms will lead inexorably to other personal liberties. There is no doubt that our President and Congress made the best effort possible to encourage human-rights progress in China through the threat of withholding favored trading status and other economic punishments. Since the United States seemed absolutely alone among nations in this threat, sustaining our position was becoming patently counterproductive.

Furthermore, the public excoriation of China's leaders made it almost impossible for them to modify their policies. The Chinese are especially sensitive to the appearance of yielding to criticisms or threats from foreigners and despise intrusion in what they consider to be internal matters.

When I was President, many foreign leaders reacted defensively when I criticized human-rights abuses of their citizens. But I insisted that their professed commitment to the United Nations charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other agreements provided legitimacy to the discussion of these issues.

We Americans have not abandoned our determination to support human rights in China, including the protection of Tibetan customs and culture. As a private citizen, I have made efforts to consummate commitments made in 1978 by Chairman Deng Xiaoping to approve direct talks between Beijing leaders and the Dalai Lama, with the proviso that the independence of Tibet would not be on the agenda. So far, Tibetan and Chinese leaders have not accepted this proposal, but we must continue pursuing this and other human-rights goals.

Perhaps now, even more than 15 years ago, China's cooperation with us is crucial in addressing such strategic challenges as domestic conflicts in Cambodia and Burma and the impending development of a nuclear arsenal in North Korea.

Jimmy Carter, U.S. President from 1977-1981, chairs the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation at The Carter Center in Atlanta.

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