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In order to understand the current Chinese view of human rights, a study of Chinese history is in order. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have survived through murderous raids and invasions, political upheavals and reformations, as well as numerous foreign “invasions” from the West and the East. To know the history of the Chinese is to know an incredible human tragedy as well as the indomitable spirit of a people. With so much death, devastation, and renewal, it is no wonder that the eastern view of life balanced with death, the yin and yang as it were, is so integral to the nature of the Chinese psyche.

With that in mind, it seems logical that the political/economical discussions between the United States and the Chinese regarding entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and awarding Most Favored Nation Trading Status (MFNTS) have hit so many difficulties. In fact, the United States, under President Clinton, has made little of the human rights issue compared with the previous Bush Administration. This is, by and large, a complex issue, encompassing discussions having many social and economic variables. The following statements will therefore be limited solely to human rights issues.

There should be, as with any important discussion, an agreement upon the definition of certain key terms. Human rights as an issue, does, indeed, mean something far different to Western cultures than to some Eastern cultures. In America, the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution has shaped and defined our view of human rights not limited to the pursuits of life, liberty and happiness. None of the aforementioned are really considered “rights” in China. In a basically legalistic society, what is right and wrong varies by region and regional leader. A good example of this cultural difference is demonstrated in the very different approaches that China has adopted in reunifying Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet with the rest of the country. Therefore, in these discussions, a common definition of human rights must be agreed upon prior to any real progress in negotiations regarding these issues.

A great starting point for the agreement of definitions would be the right to life. The Chinese government has not in the past, nor is it currently holding life of its citizens in high regard. It would also be helpful to note that the Chinese Government has been far more careful with its negotiations involving foreign nations and organizations than it has with its own political and social organizations. Little more than lip service was paid to the students of Tiananmen Square and to the Dali Lama of Tibet as far as negotiations were concerned. When the chips were down, oppression, suppression and death were the final tools of negotiation with the official government. In a recent poll of city dwellers in China, 62% of respondents were in favor of a deal with the United States. A few individuals and organizations are willing to speak out against the Zemin Government by questioning its actions in Tiananmen Square and refuting its claims of no deaths in its violent oppression of student protest. Many are risking government reprisals by openly sending e-mail from China to individuals and companies in the U.S. asking for trade and freedom from the current state-run telecommunications system.

These examples are an obvious indicator that the people of China are far more willing to accept some Western reforms in human rights, such as free speech, than the current government is willing to admit or even allow. To the Zemin Government’s credit, the key negotiator in the WTO agreement, Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, has shown an amazing willingness to publicly and vocally stand against the old school of politics in Communist China and gently steer his great nation toward the 21st century. Should such telecommunication advances actually be allowed in China, its citizens have an opportunity to garner more vocal support from world nations such as those of the WTO. This support, coupled with world –wide publicity, carries the potential of actual negotiation rather than the former lip service granted Chinese citizens in the past.

An important issue regarding human rights abuses in China, of which most Americans are not aware, is that much of the trade in question is through a few key enterprises and producers in China. These producers are state run and most of the profits therein continue to fund the military and the Communist Party. This “Norinco cartel” funding is at the very heart of the human rights abuses in China. Therefore, no real dialog or agreement can come without addressing this primary funding issue. The WTO nations should not be asked to continue to fund the forces of oppression in China without a guarantee of reform as well as a verifiable measure of these reforms.

With the newly demonstrated willingness to change, coupled with a continued open dialog on issues such as human rights, China has the potential of surpassing Japan and even the United States as an economic superpower in the infant century ahead. However, holding optimism in check until actual reforms are in place and verified seems the wise course of action regarding the Chinese Government and its slow, shaky steps toward worldwide economic acceptance. In addition to self-education, correspondence with key public officials regarding the continued funding of Radio Free Asia, as well as measures to overcome the Chinese Governments scrambling of these broadcasts, will support economic and social reforms for the Chinese people. Communicating your opinions to your government representatives is a tangible way of displaying support or opposition to this important issue, and accomplishes far more than a minor boycott of Chinese products will ever produce.