- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2000

On Oct. 1, 1992, Bill Clinton, running for election as president, made a speech in Milwaukee that was one of the finest and most deeply American I had ever heard. But it turned out to be the beginning of a road that finally reached its goal in Washington on Sept. 19, 1992, with the betrayal of religious and political prisoners, in China and Tibet, and in every other country where they scream in their cells, or die in them.

That speech was based clearly on the urgent need for the United States to follow the philosophy of democratic realism. That is the belief in the political and economic strength of political freedom and the practical and moral need to support those peoples who live and suffer longing for liberty of the mind.

Then, as now, democratic realism was one of two competing international philosophies in the West. The other, realpolitik, assumed that all that really counted in the world was tangible power, particularly the power of money earned through international trade. "Realpolitikians" believe that to make the hopes of tortured countries part of important international interests, or to put those hopes ahead of trade and the jingle of the cash register, is irrelevant and dangerous sentimentality.

Mr. Clinton spoke of the importance of democracy as a philosophy and as a matter of life and death.

Democracies do not declare war on each other, sponsor international terrorism, threaten nuclear, biological and chemical war against their enemies. Democracies usually help international stability by their reliability and steadiness.

And Mr. Clinton spelled out the times where the Bush administration he hoped to defeat had acted against democratic interests like killing every congressional attempt to adopt bills that would enable the United States to tie tariffs to some easing of the arrest and torture of the religious and political prisoners in China and occupied Tibet.

The current story that Congress had been imposing sky-high tariffs on China is not true. The vetoes against linking trade and human decency prevented any economic action to help those held in prisons and forced labor camps that are a planned part of the communist economy. China received the same treatment as any democracy.

But the hope lived among fighters for human rights that the tariff power would one day be used to pressure the fingernail-pullers into a semblance of decency. It was the only way to put any honest meaning into denunciation of politburo rule by terror. In Milwaukee and afterward, Mr. Clinton indicated he would support, not veto, the judicious use of tariff power. For that he received that received the blessings of the victims and the gratitude of their supporters in the West.

I did not know then that Bill Clinton was what Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, said he was: "an unusually good liar."

Before he was inaugurated, a clutch of business executives had a chat with the president-elect. There were other such talks, lots. He began to move away from linkage between trade and human rights, although he kept that secret.

But within a year he dropped the mask: He had decided that surrendering to the politburo was "engaging" with China, so killing any thought of economic pressure for the oppressed was a terrific idea after all. He became the behind-the-scenes point man for the fiercest, best organized, most expensive lobby ever known on Capitol Hill.

What Beijing demanded was that the very concept of economic pressure for human rights in China be wiped out by ending the congressional practice of annual review to see whether oppression was getting worse, or less. The Bush and Clinton administrations had prevented any action to come out of those reviews, but they annoyed China. Beijing wanted to rule the congressional agenda about itself, and now it is.

Heel, Congress, sit.

When that Chinese-lobby bill finally came up for a vote last week, some members of Congress must have voted for it out of belief in the eternal appeasement pitch that foreign surrender on human rights would bring more trade, and more trade would bring more freedom. That has never happened in a dictatorship.

But the lobby did not leave the vote to conviction. Beijing instructed American businessmen to back the legislation, and hustle for it. Disobedience would mean loss or elimination of trade with China. Every year the Chinese sell Americans about $70 billion more than they buy from us. That deficit affects all Americans except the China-traders. After kicking and screaming a while, the human rights movement believes, the communists might ease up on forced labor and arrests for speaking and thinking. That Chinese trade advantage, growing annually, is not won ton soup.

This presidential election won't help human decency in communist rule. Both candidates support the killing of any trade connection to human rights. Meanwhile, the human rights bureau of the State Department, human rights organizations and a commission against religious persecution created by Congress after a bitter fight with the Clinton administration, say repression is getting worse for Chinese who speak or worship in ways forbidden by the communists.

Some prisoners, a relative handful, may be freed by the communists one day to perfume their propaganda and lessen the stench a bit.

Bill Clinton will never be free of his betrayal. But I don't think he will care at all.

A.M. Rosenthal, the former executive editor of the New York Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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