President Bush told Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen yesterday that relations between Washington and Beijing could not be normalized unless China improved its human rights record.
At the same time, the president praised China's decision not to block a U.N. resolution Thursday which authorizes military action in the Persian Gulf if diplomacy fails to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
The hour-long meeting in the White House Cabinet Room was the first between Bush and any senior Chinese official since Chinese tanks crushed a pro-democracy movement 18 months ago, killing hundreds of demonstrators.
Administration officials have acknowledged that the invitation to Qian was made in appreciation of his government's action at the United Nations.
Some human rights activists and members of Congress have warned that such high-profile meetings may send the wrong message to China by suggesting a normalization of U.S.-Chinese relations even while the crackdown in China continues.
Sensitive to this criticism, administration officials said afterward that Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who also met with Qian for more than two hours at the State Department, emphasized their concerns about the continued detention of hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition he not be named, said Bush told Qian that the United States would like to have better relations with China but, before that could happen, "we need to see some improvement" in human rights in China.
The president added that those improvements would have to be obvious before remaining sanctions can be lifted, the official said.
Sanctions imposed in 1989 included a ban on high-level trade and economic exchanges and on U.S-backed insurance for private firms doing business in China. Some sanctions have since been relaxed, allowing China to launch U.S.-built communications satellites and permitting some World Bank lending to China for humanitarian needs.
Baker, according to one source, stressed to Qian that concern over continued suppression of internal dissent was something shared by the administration and Congress.
Richard Schifter, assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian issues, also attended the sessions with Qian. State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said after the meeting that Schifter and Reginald Bartholomew, under secretary for international security affairs, "would separately visit China in the near future to extend the dialogue on human rights and non-proliferation issues, respectively."
Democrats in Congress yesterday criticized the Bush-Qian meeting, with Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Maine) saying it made "no sense to make even more concessions" to China given the continued human rights abuses.
Critics of the moves toward normalization say that China is taking advantage of U.S. preoccupation with the Persian Gulf crisis to begin prosecutions of some prominent dissidents accused of being ringleaders in the democracy movement.
A senior administration official complained yesterday of China's "bad timing" in announcing the prosecutions of dissidents virtually on the eve of Qian's visit.
There was extraordinary confusion yesterday at the State Department over Qian's itinerary. Earlier in the week, administration officials had expected Baker to meet with Qian in Washington so long as the Chinese did not exercise their veto of the U.N. resolution on the use of force.
The visit would include a meeting with Bush, these officials said, only if the Chinese voted to support the U.S.-backed resolution.
If China abstained, as it eventually did, the officials said that no White House meeting would be scheduled. But Bush, a former ambassador to China, apparently decided he wanted to meet Qian anyway, according to a knowledgeable source, and called Baker yesterday morning to inform him of his decision.
Baker's schedule, issued yesterday by the State Department, had him meeting Qian, holding a working lunch with the minister and then going with him to the White House. But to confuse matters further, State Department officials officials then corrected the schedule, saying Qian's meeting at the White House was a "clerical error" and a misunderstanding by a low-level employee who issued the schedule.
Baker would be going to the White House for a meeting with Bush, but Qian would not be going with him, the officials said. Even as Qian's motorcade pulled away from the State Department, officials said Qian might be going to see Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher.
A few minutes later, Qian showed up at the White House.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.