President Clinton's Visit To China In Context
President Clinton's ten-day trip to China marks a major watershed in U.S.-China relations. It
symbolizes both the formal end of a diplomatic chill that began with the June 4, 1989 crackdown
in Tiananmen Square and the culmination of a long, slow process of normalization of relations -
"constructive engagement" - that began about four years ago. While some would argue that the
policy has produced tangible benefits in the economic and security spheres, the human rights
dividend thus far has been small: releases of a few well-known prisoners, such as Wei Jingsheng
and Wang Dan; the Chinese government's signing of an important human rights treaty, the
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and its as yet unfulfilled
promise to ratify both it and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and some
progress toward legal reform.
To put the visit in context, it is worth looking at a few key human rights dates in U.S.-China relations.
June 4, 1989: Tanks from the People's Liberation Army fire on student protestors and other
demonstrators aroundTiananmen Square in Beijing. The death toll was probably in the high
hundreds but no accurate count was ever made, nor was there ever a full accounting of those
imprisoned, tried, convicted, or released in the aftermath of the crackdown.
June 6, 1989: In protest over the killings, the Bush administration imposed sanctions, including a
suspension of sales of military items, suspension of visits between US and Chinese military
leaders; a "sympathetic review" of requests from Chinese students for asylum.
June 20, 1989: Bush administration announced decision to oppose loans to China in the World
Bank and other international financial institutions and suspend all participation in high-level
exchanges of government officials. (The last was violated almost immediately after Bush sent
National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on a secret visit to Beijing in July.)
January 30, 1990: President Bush signs into law a China sanctions bill that includes a ban on
Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) insurance for US investment in China, a
suspension of export licenses for the sale of munitions, crime control equipment and satellites,
and a proibition on the liberalization of COCOM controls on the sale of high technology goods.
August 2, 1990: Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and U.S. intensified efforts to improve China relations
as a way of securing Chinese cooperation with Gulf War strategy.
October 1990: House of Representatives resolved to repeal China's Most Favored Nation status
by a vote of 247 to 174, then, by a vote of 383 to 30, passes legislation to maintain MFN but with
strict human rights conditions. No action in the Senate.
November 27, 1990: Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen visited Washington for talks on the
Persian Gulf, the highest-ranking official to visit since June 4, 1989.
December 1990: Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Richard Schifter visited China
with a list of 150 political prisoners on whom the U.S. was seeking information. This was the
beginning of what was called a "human rights dialogue," a process that in fact produced little
information and less progress on human rights.
January-February 1991: trials in Beijing of those considered the "black hands" of the 1989
March 1991: Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Richard Solomon,
returns from a visit to China saying a dialogue on human rights, initiated in December 1990, had
July 1991: After President Bush extended MFN in May 1991, both house of Congress pass bills
linking MFN to human rights conditions, with the Senate version conditioning continued MFN
on trade and nuclear proliferation questions as well. After the two bills are reconciled, the House
passes the conference version in October by a vote of 409 to 21. The issue of Chinese political
prisoners producing goods for export to the U.S. emerged during the MFN debate.
November 15-17, 1991: Secretary of State James Baker goes to Beijing, bringing an official end
to the ban on high-level exchanges imposed after the Tiananmen crackdown.
January 31, 1992: President Bush meets with Premier Li Peng during U.N. Security Council
meeting in New York.
April-May 1992: Human Rights Watch proposes that instead of making MFN an all or nothing
proposal that tariff increases be imposed selectively unless human rights improvements take
place. Bills based on this proposal are introduced into the House and Senate despite
administration objections, and President Bush extends MFN on June 2. He claims that
administration had secured an "accounting" of 800 political prisoners on a list given to the
Chinese government in June 1991, but in fact, the information obtained was virtually useless.
August 1992: The U.S. and China sign a memorandum of understanding to stop export to the
U.S. of products made in Chinese prisons. The M.O.U. is never fully implemented.
September 1992: Bush vetoes MFN legislation on September saying, "Our human rights
dialogue gives us an avenue to express our views directly to China's leaders." U.S. officials at
the Treasury Department confirm that despite Tiananmen sanctions mandating a U.S. veto on
non-basic human needs loans to China from multilateral lending institutions, the administration
was making no effort to lobby allies to slow down World Bank lending to China, which reached
October 1992: President Bush signs legislation allowing some 70,000 Chinese students to rmeain
permanently in the U.S. if conditions did not allow their safe return to China by mid-1993.
November 1992: Bill Clinton elected president.
May 1993: President Clinton renews MFN but issues executive order stipulating that to receive
MFN in June 1994, China would need to make progress on a number of human rights issues.
Only two conditions were binding and absolute: promoting freedom of emigration under the
Jackson-Vanik amendment and abiding by the August 1992 agreement on prison labor exports.
In addition, "overall, significant progress" was to be made with respect to humane treatment o f
prisoners, protection of Tibet's cultural and religious heritage; release and full accounting of
political prisoners; and unhindered television and radio broadcasts into China.
August 1993: Administration bans exports of satellites and related equipment to China in
response to China's sale of M-11 ballistic missile technology to Pakistan, complicating
administration's human rights policy. Relations plummet when the U.S. stops and inspects a
Chinese merchant ship, the Yinhe, suspected of carrying chemical weapons to Iran, when it fact
it was not.
July-September 1993: Congress and the European Parliament pass separate resolutions urging
the International Olympic Committee not to choose Beijing as the site for the summer Olympic
games in the year 2000 as this would confer a seal of approval on the Chinese government's
human rights practices. In September, dissident Wei Jingsheng is released from prison in China's
last-minute but ultimately unsuccessful lobbying effort for the games.
November 1993: After a major China policy review within the U.S. administration in September,
culminating in significant liberalization of controls on the export of supercomputers and other
sensitive dual-use technology, President Clinton and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin meet at the
Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and military exchanges, suspended after the
1989 crackdown, resume with a visit to China by Assistant Secretary of Defense Charles
February 1994: Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck goes to Beijing and infuriates Chinese
officials by meeting with Wei Jingsheng, who later is arrested. The Chinese governmetn breaks
off an almost non-existent "human rights dialogue" as a result.
March 1994: Secretary of State Warren Christopher has disastrous trip to Beijing where he is
publicly humiliated by the Chinese government on human rights issues.
May 26, 1994: President Clinton de-links human rights and MFN, saying while China had not
made significant progress on many of the issues outlined in his 1993 Executive Order, a tough
human rights policy was hampering the ability of the U.S. to pursue other interests. He bans
$200 million worth of annual imports of Chinese munitions, and announces a "vigorous" new
human rights policy, including an effort to get U.S. businesses in China to adhere to a voluntary
set of principles for protecting human rights, increased support of broadcasting to China,
undefined expanded mulitlateral efforts on human rights and support for nongovernmental
organizations in China -- despite the fact that none existed at the time.
May 1995:White House announces voluntary code of conduct for businesses as promised in the
1994 decision to de-link MFN but the code proves to be generic, not aimed at companies
operating in China.
July 1995: Congress passes China Policy Act, demanding that the administration take diplomatic
initiatives to improve human rights in several specific areas.
October 24, 1995: Clinton meets with Jiang Zemin in New York, prior to another meeting at the
APEC meeting in Osaka, Japan in November.
June 1996: Clinton renews MFN and the House of Representatives votes to support him by a
vote of 286 to 141.
June 1997: Vice-President Al Gore visits China, signing $685 million worth of contracts for the
Boeing Corporation with Premier Li Peng while saying nothing about human rights and
byapssing Hong Kong just months before the July 1 handover to China.
October 1997: President Jiang Zemin visits Washington in a triumphal summit that took place
without human rights preconditions, although human rights issues are raised publicly and
November 1997: Wei Jingsheng is released and flown to the United States.
March 1998: For the first year since 1990, the U.S. fails to sponsor a resolution critical of China's
human rights practices at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in
April 1998: Wang Dan is released and flown to the United States.
US-China Summit (June 1998) and Human Rights - Campaigns Page