China's human rights slide requires attention

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

The State Department's annual human rights report is deservedly harsh in its criticism of China. Beijing's already sorry record worsened last year, the department finds, most notably in its abuse of religious groups. Underground Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and the Falun Gong spiritual movement suffered grievously at the hands of a regime "committed to perpetuating the rule of the (Communist Party) and its hierarchy" and utterly intolerant of any suspected rival sources of authority. The department cites reports that 100 or more Falun Gong practitioners died of torture while in custody. Political dissidents, among them leaders of the embryonic China Democracy Party, continued to be imprisoned as threats to state security.

The report was prepared largely in the final months of the Clinton administration, but its findings about China tend to support the harder line that a campaigning George W. Bush and his aides had indicated would be taken in a Bush presidency. The administration said Monday it will vigorously sponsor a resolution criticizing China before the U.N. Human Rights Commission, something the Clinton administration pursued with little enthusiasm. The question, however, is whether the campaign rhetoric will shape the new administration's long-term policy. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992 he faulted President George Bush as being over-accommodating toward China, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Once in office, however, Clinton concluded that overall U.S. interests required seeking stable and relaxed relations with Beijing.

Last week President Bush described as "troubling" reports that China was violating U.N. sanctions by helping Iraq upgrade its air defense system, increasing the threat to American pilots patrolling Iraq's no-fly zones. China said it would "remedy the situation" if the reports proved true. Here is a first test of relations between Beijing and the new administration. It should not take long to determine whether China is elevating its commercial and political interests in Iraq above its interest in good relations with the United States.

It would be foolish for Washington to go out of its way to pick quarrels with Beijing, but it would be craven to downplay differences where basic values and interests are involved. The State Department cites "extrajudicial killings ... torture, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest ... lengthy incommunicado detentions, and denial of due process" as occurring regularly in China. Behind each item in this catalog of state-inflicted horrors is a story of suffering for hundreds of thousands of Chinese and their families. Human rights abuses are a continuing process. Attention must be paid not just in once-a-year reports but full time.

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