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America's retreat on human rights

The famous Chinese dissident, Wei Jingsheng, a notoriously cheerful man for someone who served 18 years in jail for speaking well of democracy, said glumly the other night that "you can put a lot of effort into human rights, but you don't necessarily get a lot back."

Recent events prove him right. They produced shock, horror and foreboding among human rights advocates. Their de facto leader, the president of the United States, who talked a good game as a candidate, hardly gives it even lip service these days.

Recently, a high-level administration mission, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, has been in Beijing helping to smooth the way for the June visit of our peripatetic president. The president's people, according to the human rights groups, seem prepared to declare progress on the mainland and concentrate on Tibet. The plan is to be able to say, as George Bush so often did, "been there, done that" if human rights comes up in June. At the summit, there will be no talk of continuing mainland violations like slave labor, forced abortions, the sale of prisoners' organs and the continued imprisonment of more than 2,000 dissenters.

The planners arranged the ultimate kowtow: Clinton will begin his visit in Tiananmen Square, site of the murder of human rights in China.

Administration spinners cite Wei's release last year and the recent release of another dissident, Wang Dan _ the latter in preparation for the summit _ as examples of progress. Tibet, by all accounts, is one large concentration camp. And last week, six Buddhist priests protesting the fate of their country were dragged away from their hunger strike in New Delhi, taken to prison and force-fed. One of six monks who were replacing the original fasters set himself on fire.

Central America, always a reliable source of human rights outrage, offered the horrendous murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, a human rights leader who had just finished a multivolume report on human rights violations in Guatemala. He was bludgeoned to death. In Guatemala, the death squad is plainly alive and well. The valiant bishop had planned to distribute copies of his report to peasants, and seek their reaction and further information. His intention was his death warrant. Wei said somberly of his fallen brother, "I know he will be replaced."

Wei came to town to pick up the award conferred on him in 1994 by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation. He was in prison at the time.

Wei was in the excellent spirits that are his trademark. In an interview, he explained that he survived his long and often brutal incarceration by thinking of other prisoners of conscience and working out scientific problems he set himself. He also drove the authorities crazy with a stream of cheeky letters pointing out the error of their policies and the inevitability of their downfall.

He gave his recollections of a Dec. 8 visit to Bill Clinton _ and the subsequent U.S. reversal on human rights. He told of a quintessentially Clintonian moment in the Oval Office. The president was effusive in his greeting to Wei and expansive in his enthusiasm for dissidents and human rights. Then National Security Adviser Sandy Berger joined them, and added a large dose of reality _ about $4-billion contracts with China and the importance of America's share in the Chinese market.

Clinton broke in and said, "Berger doesn't really mean that. We are concerned about trade, but we are much more concerned about human rights."

A thunderous retreat in Geneva at the meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights showed that Berger really did mean it, and spoke for Clinton, too. Wei went to Geneva, where for the first time the United States opposed human rights sanctions on China. The effect on European leaders, whom Wei visited, was devastating. "If the U.S. is not going to say anything, why should we?" one European foreign minister told him.

Wei obviously thinks Clinton is all wet in thinking that trade _ with its $40-billion deficit favoring the Chinese _ will mollify China. "China needs you more than you need China," he told Clinton, who can't have it both ways on China much longer.

It's equally clear that the worldwide consensus about China after Tiananmen Square has been shattered. Without the United States carrying the flag, the cause of human rights withers and dies. No wonder human rights activists are feeling gloomy.

Universal Press Syndicate