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James Heartfield explains why China's slave labour camps were no barrier to the renewal of the country's Most Favoured Nation trading status in Washington

Human rights make no cents

Five years ago American TV viewers watched in horror as Chinese students protesting in Beijing's Tiananmen Square were crushed under tanks and gunned down by government troops. The students, riding the wave of protests that swept through the Stalinist world in 1989, were demanding political liberalisation alongside the economic liberalisation that China's ageing leadership had begun to introduce. All the more poignant for Americans was the students' choice of mascot: a model of the Statue of Liberty.

Coddling Beijing

Less than three years ago, presidential challenger Bill Clinton poured scorn on the incumbent George Bush for 'coddling' the Beijing regime. Bush had restored China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status, and the low tariffs which that guarantees, while the survivors of the Tiananmen Square massacre were still incarcerated in Peking Number Two jail.

One year ago president Clinton restated his determination to get tough with China. He renewed Beijing's MFN, but gave warning that the Chinese regime was on 12 months parole. If China had not cleaned up its human rights act within a year, it would no longer be a most favoured nation in Washington.

Since then, the Chinese regime has kept many of the Tiananmen dissidents in jail, even arresting one leading protester, Wang Dan, in the middle of an interview with a US television crew days before MFN status was up for renewal. Meanwhile, evidence has accumulated of the role which slave labour camps are playing in the advance of China's new capitalism. Clinton's response? When the year's trial was up in May, he removed all conditions and fully restored China's Most Favoured Nation status. According to Zhao Hai-ching, president of the dissident National Council on Chinese Affairs, 'thousands of democracy activists and millions of Chinese people now face a dramatic new wave of repression'.

After he took office in 1993, Clinton's decision to make human rights a cornerstone of US foreign policy was widely interpreted as a defining moment of his presidency. Today, as Washington courts China's leaders, Clinton's image as a champion of human rights is in tatters. But there has been no real change of policy; the Clinton administration's commitment to human rights was always a cynical ploy. The American administration, like any capitalist state, could never seriously be expected to put the question of rights before its share of the world market.

Clinton has emphasised human rights in an attempt to restore the coherence to foreign policy that America lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cold War provided a rationale for US foreign policy and American pre-eminence around the world. The global promotion of American power could plausibly be presented as synonymous with the defence of the free world against Soviet subversion. But since 1989, there has been no external threat to cohere the Western Alliance behind American aims.


By proclaiming a commitment to human rights and humanitarian intervention against third world despots, Clinton seemed to many commentators to be restoring a sense of purpose to American foreign policy, returning the USA to the moral high ground of world affairs. By cloaking its diplomatic and military interventions in the third world and Eastern Europe in the language of a human rights crusade, Clinton won wide acceptance of America's right to dictate to the Iraqis, Somalis or North Koreans.

In fact, American actions around the world continued to be guided by the hard-headed demands of realpolitik. But the general willingness of Western observers to take Clinton's talk of defending human rights at face value allowed the charade to continue. Even where American troops were massacring people on the ground by the score, as in Somalia, the pretence of humanitarianism could be upheld as long as American authority was only challenged by those with little clout and fewer allies.

But it is one thing for American presidents to lecture people in Rwanda or Somalia about human rights, or to threaten North Korea over its atomic energy programme - all countries where there are no major US economic interests at stake. It is something else entirely for Washington to allow such posturing to interfere with its relations with a key trading partner like China.

In China, America's 'human rights' policy has been exposed as so much hot air, as China's burgeoning domestic market outweighed all other considerations. Since 1978, when China's Stalinist leadership tentatively introduced market reforms in a bid to overcome economic stagnation, growth has averaged nine per cent, reaching 14 per cent last year. With a Gross Domestic Product of £190 billion and a population of 1185m, the Chinese market is one that no economic power can afford to ignore.

Clinton's use of Most Favoured Nation status as a stick to beat the Chinese leadership with proved useful for so long as Beijing was willing to play along with the game. Shortly before the decision on whether to renew China's MFN status was due, the Beijing regime released two dissident leaders, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, who were accused of being the 'black hands' behind the democracy movement. A supporter of the two told the New York Times 'even if releasing Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming involves a great risk for the Chinese government, today's action shows that the Chinese government is willing to take this risk in order to win [MFN status]' (14 May 1994). As the New York Times pointed out the trade privileges involved are worth $30 billion to China.

Unfortunately for Clinton, two freed dissidents was about all that Beijing was offering, and when it came to MFN the Americans had at least as much to lose as the Chinese government. In the event, the human rights of a billion or so Chinese proved a lot less important than American industry's bottom line.

Important as America's domestic market is for the Chinese, the Chinese domestic market is growing so quickly that it is important for the world. Malaysia, Japan and even Taiwan were hostile to any move on America's part that would dampen China's economic expansion - a major stimulus to growth in East Asia. And Europe was fighting America hard for a niche in the growing Chinese market. As the deadline for a decision on MFN status approached, it became clear that, if Washington did not renew, Air China would drop a £3.3 billion deal with Boeing and buy the European Airbus instead.

Rights or trade?

As American business put pressure on Clinton to renew China's MFN status, Democratic Senator Bill Bradley caught the mood of the administration by demanding the 'decoupling' of human rights and trade. It was no contest. China's Most Favoured Nation status was renewed, and America's crusade for human rights was shelved.

In the run-up to the American decision, an unlikely champion of human rights emerged: the British government. Whitehall was working behind the scenes to scupper China's MFN status. The BBC ran a series of programmes exposing Chinese prison labour camps - including Peking Number Two, where most of the leaders of the 1989 protest were held - as the engine of the Chinese export drive. The secret British campaign was assisted by the publication of Amnesty International's report on the Tiananmen Square massacre that lists those killed - among details of other Chinese atrocities - for the first time.

Britain's surprise stand for democracy was as self-serving as Clinton's decision to continue trade with China. The one country that stands to lose out through the opening up of the Chinese market is Britain. Currently Britain has an advantageous position in South-East Asia, and especially with mainland China, because it still holds Hong Kong as a colony. In years gone by, the Hong Kong stock exchange was the principle conduit for Chinese trade, but as China opens up to the world market, Hong Kong stands to lose its special status. In 1997 the colony reverts to Chinese control as governor Chris Patten - 'Fat Pang' - hands over.

'Like a lamb'

In an attempt to bolster Britain's standing, Patten has, belatedly, sought to introduce partial democracy to the colony, and tried to guarantee human rights in Hong Kong after 1997. Not surprisingly the Beijing government is unimpressed by Britain's sudden conversion to the idea of democracy for the Chinese, and Britain's relations with China have become decidedly frosty. British business fears being squeezed out of the region altogether by a new Washington-Beijing axis. That is why the British Foreign Office has been working behind the scenes to persuade the American government not to renew China's MFN status, ostensibly because of Beijing's human rights record.

But despite Britain's last-minute conversion to the cause of freedom for the Chinese people, Fat Pang was keen to make sure that Britain did not lose out completely in the rush for China's markets. Within a week of Clinton's renewal of MFN, the British governor had reversed a decision to set up a human rights commission to guarantee democracy in Hong Kong after 1997. Members of Hong Kong's legislature said that Patten had gone to London 'like a lion' but returned 'like a lamb'.

To make matters worse, the British consulate in New York had already refused visas for Hong Kong to two exiled dissidents on the advice of the colony's immigration department. Liu Binyan and Ruan Ming had been invited to take part in Hong Kong's fifth anniversary protests over the Tiananmen Square massacre, but instead they were silenced in a bid to improve Britain's standing with the Beijing regime. Like the US administration, the British government has acknowledged that there is no 'coupling' between democracy and capitalism, and support for repression is a price worth paying in the struggle for a place in the Chinese market.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 69, July 1994

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