(New York) -- As the World Trade Organization (WTO) prepared to meet in Seattle (November 30 - December 3), Human Rights Watch called on the Clinton Administration to take steps to ensure that its support of China's WTO membership is matched by consistent pressure on China to comply with its international human rights obligations.
"The administration must couple its efforts to make China a more reliable trading partner with serious parallel pressure for significant improvements in human rights," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "China must go beyond opening its markets to opening its jails, easing restrictions on the press and the Internet, and protecting rights of workers."
Human Rights Watch does not take a position on trade agreements per se, and does not endorse any particular trade agreement, including the one signed by the U.S. and China. However, it believes the process of China's WTO entry can be most beneficial for human rights in China if it is combined with effective, sustained pressure for greater political as well as economic freedoms in the country.
As part of a WTO deal, President Clinton says he will lobby Congress to give up the annual process of reviewing China's trade status and grant China permanent Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status. But before signing off on permanent NTR, Congress should set concrete, meaningful human rights conditions that Beijing must meet. For example, China should be required to ratify the two United Nations human rights treaties it has signed (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); take steps to begin dismantling the huge system of "reeducation through labor" which allows officials to sentence thousands of citizens to labor camps each year for up to three years without judicial review; open up Tibet and Xinjiang to regular, unhindered access by U.N. human rights and humanitarian agencies, foreign press, and independent monitors; and review the sentences of more than 2,000 convicted "counter-revolutionaries" with a view towards releasing most of them. Verifiable progress, not just promises, should be required.
Another critical source of external pressure on Beijing is the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which convenes in Geneva for its next session on March 20, 2000. In the past, China has shown that it can be extraordinarily sensitive to possible condemnation by the Commission. In 1995, a resolution on China came within one vote of passing, and since then Beijing has expended major effort worldwide to keep any critical resolution off the Commission's agenda -- including by threatening to cut off trade deals or investment opportunities to governments that might support action. But if a resolution is to have any chance of success next year, a decision is needed now by the U.S. government and other of China's key trading partners to sponsor a resolution and begin high-level lobbying to line up support.
Human Rights Watch believes that WTO membership won't itself reform the Chinese system or lead to political changes, but it could be an important catalyst over the long run if combined with consistent pressure from outside China. For instance, greater transparency in economic matters could increase demands and expectations -- both inside and outside China -- for more openness in other areas. Demands to modernize China's legal system to handle commercial disputes, as recommended by the World Bank and others, could lay the groundwork for an independent judiciary and the rule of law that might extend to the political and security realms. The closing of thousands of state-run enterprises could push workers to insist on greater collective decision-making on workplace issues and the need for a social safety net, exercising the right of free association guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which China signed in October 1997, but has not ratified.
But WTO membership in itself will not guarantee this result. Economic openness could continue to be accompanied by tight restrictions on basic freedoms and a lack of governmental accountability. China might seek to build the rule of law in the economic sphere while continuing to pervert and undermine the rule of law elsewhere, as it has with the crackdown on Falun Gong and pro-democracy activists, carried out according to "the rule of law." Heightened worker demands for the peaceful exercise of their rights could yield heightened repression.
The difference between these two possible paths of development, opened by China's prospective membership in the WTO, lies to a great extent in whether Beijing's chief trading partners insist that China's compliance with international trade rules must be accompanied by respect for international human rights rules.
Note: This statement is being issued in advance of the Seattle WTO ministerial meeting to clarify Human Rights Watch's November 15 statement on China's entry into the WTO.