The story of the little boy and the small Communist country may be coming to an end. But the story of the little boy and the big Communist country may just be heating up. The bill granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status to China is coming up for a vote in the House of Representatives at the end of May. The underlying issue -- freedom vs. tyranny -- just happens to be front and center, courtesy of Elian, who can become an unexpected ally of the forces lining up against the Clinton-backed legislation. After all, it's been a long time since the rhetoric of democracy vs. communism has been bandied about with such fervor.
The problem is that every nasty thing being said about Castro's Cuba can also be said about China and the butchers of Beijing. Except, of course, that Fidel isn't selling nuclear weapons to rogue nations and threatening a full-scale invasion of a democratic neighbor. Nevertheless, when the dispute turns from the plight of one Cuban boy to the plight of millions of Chinese citizens, the rhetoric changes dramatically. While we're honor-bound to have nothing to do with Cuba lest we strengthen the Communist regime, we must, we are told, for the sake of democracy, give China the status formerly known as "Most Favored."
These are intellectually irreconcilable positions. You can honestly be against the China bill and against returning Elian to Cuba -- as, for example, Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) are. But you can't honestly use fevered human rights rhetoric against Cuba while waxing poetic about trading with the increasingly abusive Chinese regime.
Yet that's just what Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas), among many others, has done. While railing against Cuba turning Elian into a "Communist pawn," the House Majority Leader considers giving permanent trade status to China "the single most important thing we will do all this year." His hyperbole is matched only by his rapturous, misplaced rhetoric: "Open that market, open that opportunity for freedom for all the Chinese people," he gushed at a press conference on the GOP legislative agenda, "and watch the freedom movement grow in China as a consequence of this."
In Cuba, it is the embargo that's supposed to lead to liberalization. In China, it's unfettered trade that's supposed to bring about freedom and democracy -- a strategy Chinese dissident Harry Wu calls "as realistic as convincing a tiger to become a vegetarian." And this position continues to be defended despite massive evidence to the contrary. Ninety-six billion dollars per year in U.S.-China trade has failed to encourage Beijing to allow its citizens greater freedom.
The hypocrisy is just as thick on the other side of the aisle. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) says that he wants to "keep American corporations from subsidizing the regime through trade" in Cuba. But his office claims he doesn't yet know how he'll vote on the China bill. What new facts is he waiting for? Or is he just waiting for Amnesia Del Elian to set in before deciding to do the bidding of the corporate interests he's been relentlessly shaking down as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee? "This dispute has context," he said of Cuba. "It is not the fact that repression is continuing. In many respects, it is getting worse."
This could also sum up the State Department's latest human rights report which concludes that Beijing's "poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year, as the government intensified efforts to suppress dissent." And in a throwback to the ugly days of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese government this month purged a number of officials, accusing them of "Westernization" and failing to follow Marxist beliefs.
The State Department report details an appalling litany of abuses: Prisoners are denied due process, tortured and even killed. Violence against women -- including forced abortion, forced sterilization and being sold into prostitution -- is a common occurrence, leading to a female suicide rate five times the global average. And if Elian were being sent back to China, he would find himself in a world where children are abused, sold or put to work for slave wages.
Yet Armey derided as unnecessary proposed legislation that would at least ensure an ongoing review of China's human rights record. This from the same man who, in 1998, adopted as "a personal priority" the International Religious Freedom Act.
Well, according to the State Department, "tens of thousands of members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement were detained after the movement was banned in July." Some were sentenced to long prison terms while others were sentenced to reeducation through labor. But Armey and the rest of the Republican leadership -- who once fulminated against the president's moral ambiguity -- have now adopted a similarly tortured approach to foreign policy, human rights, religious freedoms and family values. And the Democrats, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), chief among them, are following suit. Graham has risen to rhetorical heights in condemning the tyranny in Cuba but has lost his voice when it comes to the tyranny in China and is planning to vote for the bill.
"What does it mean to live in peace," Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) asked in proposing a Senate resolution on Cuba, "if there is no freedom to worship God, no freedom to choose our livelihood, no freedom to read or speak the truth?" This is the question members of the House and the Senate should answer before they decide how to vote on the China bill.
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