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Senate OKs trade status for China despite deteriorating rights record

WASHINGTON (BP)–Congress’ annual review of China’s human rights record before granting the Beijing government favored trade status came to an end Sept. 19 when the Senate resoundingly approved permanent relations with the communist giant.

The Senate voted 83-15 in favor of permanent normal trade relations for China. The easy win was expected after the measure passed in a far more contested vote in the House of Representatives. The House approved PNTR by a 237-197 vote in May.

Congress passed the proposal despite opposition from some conservative Christians, as well as labor unions and human rights and environmental activists.

One of the primary reasons for opposition to PNTR was the Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of Christians, Tibetan Buddhists and other religious adherents. Other concerns cited by PNTR opponents were numerous human rights abuses, including coercive abortion and sterilization, as well as China’s military build-up and increased threats toward Taiwan and the United States, possible harm to American workers and businesses, and pollution in the world’s most populous country.

Critics said granting PNTR would eliminate an important vehicle for holding the Beijing government accountable. Proponents of PNTR said it would open China not only to American products but to increased freedom as well.

The Senate passed PNTR despite recent reports critical of China’s record on religious freedom:

— In May, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended in its inaugural report Congress not approve PNTR until Beijing made significant improvements in its religious rights record. Suppression of Christians and other religious adherents in China had increased in the last year, the commission reported. The panel was established by Congress and appointed by the president and congressional leadership.

— The State Department reported in early September “respect for religious freedom deteriorated markedly” in China during part of the last year. The department’s second report on religious freedom overseas again listed China as one of seven totalitarian states.

The Senate vote means China will be free to “continue and increase its pattern of persecution of Christians and other people of faith,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

He was disappointed the Senate ignored its “own commission, as well as the State Department’s recent report that things are getting worse, not better, in China on human rights,” Land said. “This Senate action puts the U.S. government in the position of rewarding deplorable behavior by the Chinese government that is escalating rather than diminishing. It is a sad day for all who love freedom and dignity for all human beings.”

Christians should “renew their resolve to pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in China who find disfavor in the eyes of the Chinese government and who will continue to be persecuted for their faith,” he said. “Our prayers and pleas for their safety and liberty should not be stilled but intensified with this action by the Senate.”

Robert Maginnis, vice president of foreign affairs for Family Research Council, charged the Senate had “sacrificed the last peaceable leverage available to the United States for initiating reform in China.”

“Passing PNTR without any amendments is like giving a bull free rein in a China shop,” Maginnis said in a written release.

The Senate rejected a series of amendments seeking to tie PNTR to Beijing’s policies on such issues as human and religious rights, as well as arms.

PNTR received the backing of the White House as well as both political parties in the Senate.

President Clinton said after the Senate vote PNTR “is a step in the right direction. The more China opens its markets to our products, the wider it opens its doors to economic freedom and the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people.

“And we will find, I believe, that America has more influence in China with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist.”

Among the 15 senators voting against PNTR, seven were Democrats and eight were Republicans.

In addition to the ERLC and FRC, other opponents of PNTR included the AFL-CIO, Focus on the Family, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Concerned Women for America, Amnesty International USA, Eagle Forum, the U.S. Business and Industry Council and the Sierra Club.