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House of Representative Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt argues for a firmer policy of engagement

America is a nation conceived in principle and that principle is human liberty. And from the beginning, we have always recognised that freedom is not just an American right; it is a God-given right to every citizen of the world. America began with a simple sentence that is still the most revolutionary statement ever put on paper, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness'.

The founders of our nation never intended these words to apply only to a few million people living in thirteen colonies on the eastern shore of America. At our best, we have had a foreign policy that returned again and again to its fundamental centre: the cause of freedom for ourselves, and around the globe. In this century alone, when we faced the Kaiser's despotism, when we faced Hitler's fascism, and when we faced communist leaders from Stalin to Brezhnev, we did so not because we sought to impose our will, but because we knew that the world needed American leadership to preserve human rights.

Thomas Jefferson and the founders had it right, more than two hundred years ago. Freedom is part of the very fabric of what it means to be human - and that is true in every corner of the globe. In that spirit, I insist here - and I will insist in the great debates ahead - that human rights must be at the very core of our foreign and international economic policies. Not only is it a matter of basic values, but of national interest.

Evil empire

Basic human rights are universal aspirations, not a cultural preference. The totalitarians who rule China - and we should not be afraid to call them that, as Ronald Reagan was not afraid to speak of the Evil Empire - openly express their contempt for the ideals of freedom. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly last October, China's President denounced it as a ploy to undermine China's independence.

We must not join that chorus, or offer assent by silence or appeasement. For brave men and women in China, freedom is more than fine words and easy rhetoric; for it, they have sacrificed their personal liberty - and too often, even their lives. Don't tell them that human rights are a western idea, a European idea, and that no Asians need apply. Don't excuse tyranny by insulting its victims.

Human rights is, at its heart, about the rule of law. A government that can arbitrarily violate the liberty of its people cannot be trusted to abide by the rules of contract or the rights of companies.

But the economic issue is not that narrow. The repression of political rights is inevitably combined with the denial of economic rights. And the ripple effects of that denial soon reach deep into the American market. Almost every other country in the world now has virtually unfettered access to the our market. Our goal is a world of middle-class consumers eager to buy our products - not a world where low-priced imports flood our market, depressing wages in industries and sectors that have to compete with those imports. We can't compete against workers who have no rights to demand a higher wage in return for their hard work and increased productivity. We can't compete with slave labour.

It's clear that passive efforts to promote greater human rights won't work. Voluntary codes of conduct and other efforts, while often well-intentioned, have had little or no impact. For years the business community has argued that its participation in the economy - simply being there - would yield results. So far, no real progress has been made. We now hear the same arguments for constructive engagement with China that we heard about South Africa. But nothing fundamental changed in South Africa until sanctions came.

Fairer trade

Our goal must be to promote open societies in a freer world of fairer trade. We must demand that efforts to expand coverage of the World Trade Organisation include human rights, for they are inextricably intertwined with any true strategy of global prosperity. As Bill Greider has written: 'The terms of trade are usually thought of as commercial agreements, but they are also an implicit statement of moral values.'

We must urge that the G-7 become an active force for a freer world. Members of Congress from both parties recently advocated just such an approach. When the leaders of the world's great democracies meet, democracy itself should be on the agenda. At the same time, our agenda must also include the aggressive use of our own economic power - the leverage of our market - to promote change.

We must invoke our economic power to press for change, as we did in South Africa. If we are to have any credibility among those who believe in America's promise, we must put our money where our mouth is. This Administration has finally placed sanctions on Burma as punishment for its odious human rights record, yet it refuses to make the same strong statement when it comes to similar circumstances in Beijing.

The people of the world yearn for a consistent American human rights policy. It is potentially our greatest strength. Those who suffer need to know they are not alone; those who repress need to know that America will not reward their misdeeds.

The leverage of our market can and must be a hinge of human freedom. We must remember that the denial of most-favoured-nation trading privileges - and the leverage provided by the Jackson-Vanik Amendment - was part of the 'long twilight struggle' that transformed Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Last year, Congress passed, and the President signed, the Helms-Burton law that goes beyond our earlier sanctions against Cuba and extends penalties against other nations that trade with the Castro regime. The law demonstrates the depth of our commitment to the end of the last dictatorship in this Hemisphere.

Other laws must no longer gather dust on a shelf, or be rendered null and void by a diplomacy of indifference to human rights. Our trade laws permit us to stop goods made with slave labour from crossing our border. Despite strong evidence, our Customs Service claims it can't identify the products. Instead, they keep asking foreign governments - often the very perpetrators of the offence - to help find more evidence. Not surprisingly, this charade seems to turn up nothing. If the law doesn't give the Customs Service the powers it needs, we should act.

Forces of opposition

We must use our trade leverage to promote human rights as part of trade deals we sign in the future - I've argued for this as part of any new free trade arrangements. We must use the Generalised System of Preferences, the Caribbean Basin Initiative and other trade laws to advance freedom, and not to validate the status quo or strengthen the forces of opposition.

As I have already said, China is the one place in the world where all of these issues come together with great force. There, economics, human rights, the environment, and foreign policy meet and expose a bankrupt policy for all the world to see. The United States has no business playing 'business as usual' with a Chinese tyranny that persecutes Christian, Muslim leaders and leaders from many other faiths, precludes tens of millions from practising their religion, sells the most lethal weapons to the most dangerous of nations, profits off slave labour, and engages in the utter evil of forced abortion.

The next chapter opens in July, with the return of Honk Kong to Chinese rule. As Great Britain's lease on the territory ends, there are increasing danger signals that the citizens of Hong Kong will lose their lease on liberty. The freely elected Legislative Council will be replaced by a body chosen by and answerable to Beijing. Hong Kong has been duly warned to expect an end to the right to protest and speak out. Indeed, China has repealed Hong Kong's Bill of Rights.

It is wrong, deeply wrong, to excuse or rationalise the uncertain gains that come from tolerating the systematic denials of political and economic rights.

And what have we gained by trafficking with a tyranny that debases the dignity of one-fifth of the human race? Our trade policy with China has failed. It has failed not only on moral grounds, but economically as well. There is nothing 'free' about our trade with China - in fact it comes to us at great cost and little benefit. Last year, we had an almost $40 billion trade deficit with China. This year it's projected to exceed $50 billion. Between 1989 and 1994, our trade deficit with China increased tenfold, partly because of their strategy of pricing their exports artificially low. They send more than a third of their exports to our shores while less than 2 per cent of our products go there. Today a small nation like Belgium is buying more US goods than China. China has said to many of our companies that if they want to sell there, they must produce there. Then they have ordained that in order to build factories there we must transfer our technological know-how to them. Business is being blackmailed into giving China the means and the trade secrets that will make them an economic powerhouse. And in return they will continue to pirate our music, software and videos.


There is no such thing as something for nothing. It is not enough to issue mild condemnations of Chinese actions. Actions speak louder than words - and our Administration's actions, as well as its words, have been far too weak when it comes to China. It is time for a new policy of firm engagement that finally advances our national interests and ideals.

A new policy of firm engagement can and must begin next month when the US Congress will review Most Favoured Nation trading status for China. This market access is a privilege, not a right. I believe that the communist Government in Beijing has forfeited that privilege. It is time we revoke China's Most Favoured Nation status.

China and every other country must know that unlimited access to the US market comes with certain responsibilities.

Last year was the first year I supported the outright revocation of China's MFN status as our primary policy tool, because it became clear to me that our policies were achieving the opposite of their claimed effect. As the President's National Security Advisor said: 'Has China's human rights situation in the last few years improved?' His own response: 'I would say no.'

We cannot appease China's leaders into honouring human rights. But we do have the power and potential incentives to seek and achieve change. As I have pointed out, more than one-third of China's exports come to America. They cannot afford to jeopardise this market. But they simply do not think we have the courage to act. In 1994, I travelled to Beijing and met with China's leaders. I was told 'We know America likes to threaten the removal of trade preferences - but when push comes to shove, we know you'll never do it.'

China has said that we can't link human rights and trade preferences - but that's exactly what they do. The Chinese reward countries who are willing to put profits ahead of people. Those who are willing to turn their backs on basic freedoms receive rich rewards.

America has the strength and the moral obligation to call this bluff - on human rights and on other issues, such as the environment. As we seek to address global warming and discuss other environmental issues, China must be part of the solution. The benefits of US action on the environment may be quickly nullified by China's and other developing nations' inaction. If these countries do not become full partners, environmental progress won't be achieved. We must also press forward to reduce the competitive disadvantages our companies who produce here at home face by lax enforcement efforts against their competitors elsewhere around the globe.

Difference of opinion

There are some who have an honest difference of opinion on this subject. They care about human rights, but believe that if we can only bring economic growth to China, human rights will follow as a matter of course. But free market Stalinism offers the benefits to relatively few, and real freedom to none. The main beneficiaries today are the corrupt bureaucrats and brutal generals who run the show. The economic disparity generates unrest and instability. China's leaders in turn cite the instability as a reason to crack down on their people. Their own future is at risk if they don't. Our current relationship in effect sanctions their repression.

Trickle-down did not work in economics and it will not work in human rights. Economic growth for the elite will not lead to basic human rights for billions. The freedom that is needed for true entrepreneurship cannot flourish in the stifling atmosphere of repression. The rule of law that is required to secure faith in business dealings will not come from a government ruled by despots. It is no accident that tiny democratic Taiwan has a per capita GNP twenty times that of mainland China. The separation between human freedom and economic freedom is a fiction, pure and simple. If we really want a China that is a market for American business, we must press consistently for a China that is more open and more respectful of individual rights.

If we don't act, no one will. France's decision to drop its support for a resolution criticising China coincided with a $2 billion purchase of Airbus aircraft. Allies from Korea to Mexico have side-stepped the issue or even voted against us in the United Nations. Poorer nations have been bought off through millions of dollars of Chinese foreign aid. The nations of the world, rich and poor alike, continue to yield to Chinese pressure because the cause of freedom has no leadership. The time has come for the United States to re-embrace its heritage and re-assert leadership.

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©Kensington Publications 1997