Despite a landmark deal on China's accession to the World Trade Organization three weeks ago, ties between the United States and China appear to be getting more tense across a range of issues, including trade, Western diplomats and Chinese analysts say.
In some areas--most notably human rights--relations between the United States and China have soured since American and Chinese negotiators clinked champagne glasses on Nov. 15 to celebrate the end of 13 years of negotiations over China's accession to the world trade body. Recently, China's foreign ministry has been refusing to accept U.S. human rights-related protests, Western diplomats said.
Even with respect to trade, things are not going smoothly. China so far has refused to implement a bilateral agricultural protocol signed with the United States in April. Two senior Chinese officials said recently that China would not implement the deal until it joined the WTO. U.S. officials said China must implement the deal as soon as possible or they would have even more difficulty persuading Congress to grant China normal trading relations.
The tension illustrates the mixed results achieved by President Clinton, who sought to use the trade talks to right a relationship rocked this year by allegations of Chinese nuclear weapons-related espionage, the White House's refusal of an earlier Chinese bid to join the WTO, and the deadly bombing of China's embassy in Yugoslavia by NATO warplanes. It also reflects the deep and, some would argue, growing mistrust and misunderstanding in relations between the two countries.
"Washington does not want to see this as a problem," one Western diplomat said of the stagnation in U.S.-China ties. "They are so focused on engagement with China but nobody can say what the engagement is for."
Chinese and American officials said vulnerabilities in the leadership of both countries are affecting ties. China's leaders are struggling with a weakening economy and potential challenges to their authority. In the United States, there is little will to take unpopular stands at home that might have long-term benefits for bilateral relations. In both countries, criticism of the other still scores domestic political points.
Top among the problems between the United States and China is, once again, human rights. On Nov. 29, Chinese police beat and detained a member of China's banned opposition political party after he met a U.S. Embassy official, Woo Lee, in Beijing, a Hong Kong-based rights group and other sources said today.
Police detained Fu Sheng of the China Democracy Party, who refused to disclose what he told Lee, the human rights officer at the embassy. Chinese police then "pinned him to the ground and punched and kicked him," according to the Information Center for Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.
Since the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, China has suspended its dialogue with the United States over human rights issues. But in recent weeks, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has even stopped accepting diplomatic protests from the United States about alleged Chinese violations. Previously, China would accept the protests but refuse to talk about the cases, Western officials said. The State Department now must issue the protests in Washington, a significant change in diplomatic protocol.
Meanwhile, the human rights situation here appears to be deteriorating. The Hong Kong-based human rights organization reported last week that more than 35,000 people have been detained since late July when China banned the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Over the last year, China also has jailed dozens of people for political offenses, such as attempting to establish the China Democracy Party, China's first opposition group.
In a speech today in Washington, President Clinton called the arrests of Falun Gong members "a troubling example" of suppression of human rights.
The Western diplomat said that the United States has warned China that unless there is a significant improvement, this year's State Department human rights report on China will be much tougher than last year's. And, he said, the United States has put China on notice that it could again support a resolution criticizing China's human rights record at the annual gathering next year of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
A Chinese official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said any such U.S. move in Geneva would "be intolerable."
"After what happened in Seattle, how could you do this with a straight face?" he said, referring to the police crackdown on protesters during the WTO meeting last week.
Initial optimism for a relatively swift resumption of military relations, also suspended by China after the bombing, has been dampened as well. Chinese officials have informed their U.S. counterparts that negotiations on compensation for China's bombed embassy--and for the damage done to U.S. diplomatic missions in China in protests following NATO's attack--must be concluded before these ties can be resumed.
The United States has already agreed to pay $4.5 million to the families of the three Chinese killed and 27 injured in the bombing. Western sources said the United States and China are very close on a figure for the Belgrade embassy but remain very far apart on an amount for the five U.S. missions in China.
One bright spot on the military front occurred last week. In Hong Kong, a small group of soldiers and airmen from China's People's Liberation Army, the U.S. Air Force and Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department mounted a joint civil rescue exercise.
CAPTION: Trade remains a contentious issue since Charlene Barshefsky of the United States, left, and China's Shi Guangsheng signed agreements on China's accession to the WTO in November.
CAPTION: China has detained thousands of Falun Gong members. Here, Washington-area residents Chang Lan Kiu, foreground, and Xueshan Teng practice Falun Gong exercises on the Mall.
CAPTION: Compensation for bomb damage to China's embassy in Belgrade and protesters' damage to U.S. missions in China, such as the embassy in Beijing, above, is still an unresolved issue.