Acquiescing to the urgings of Hong Kong’s democratic leaders, House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulled back Sunday on a proposal to link favored trade status with China to its behavior toward Hong Kong.
Gingrich, who acknowledged he is emerging from a “very painful” period in his political career, also said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had considered resigning from the speakership when his ethic problems reached a peak last winter. And he defended the balanced budget deal reached with the White House, chiding conservatives who say it compromises their principles.
In about a month, Congress must take up President Clinton’s expected decision to extend to China for another year normal trading status that ensures low tariffs on Chinese goods.
Gingrich, reflecting congressional concern about political rights in Hong Kong after the British colony reverts to Chinese control on July 1, has supported two proposals - either to put off a vote until this fall to give China a chance to show its good intentions or extend the trade status for only three or six months until the situation in Hong Kong is clearer.
But Hong Kong leaders, including its British Gov. Chris Patten and pro-democracy politicians such as Martin Lee, have come out strongly against using trade status as a leverage against Beijing.
“All of them favor extension for a full year, and it’s a little much for us to say, we’re more in favor of Hong Kong than the people of Hong Kong,” Gingrich said. “So there’s a powerful countervailing argument that the people of Hong Kong themselves want economic stability as they go through this transition.”
Gingrich, who has supported most-favored-nation trade status in the past, said he wants that normal trade relationship to continue with a broader approach to show U.S. concerns about China’s human rights record. The State Department says Beijing has stifled all dissent on the mainland.
But Gingrich, R-Ga., said that with concerns over whether China will live up to its promise to maintain Hong Kong’s economic system and civil liberties, extending trade status is “certainly a weaker vote today than it was a year ago.”
Indeed, New York Rep. Bill Paxon, a top Gingrich lieutenant, was poised to break with the House Republican leadership and announce he would no longer support China’s MFN status.
In a letter to President Clinton to be publicly released Monday, Paxon said the administration’s China policy had failed to produce improvements in China’s human rights records or bring an end to Chinese weapons sales to Iran and Pakistan. He also cited the coming transition in Hong Kong and allegations China illegally funnelled money in U.S. campaigns.
“Denial of MFN to China would be at best a blunt, imprecise instrument,” Paxon wrote. “But it would send a message to China that the United States believes in something more than the blind pursuit of trade.”
The White House has threatened to veto any effort to extend trade status for less than a year, and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson stressed Sunday on CNN’s “Late Edition” that “the best way to deal with China is to engage it, not to isolate it.” Through trade relations, he said, “we can gain leverage in other areas.”
Asked if he considered stepping down from the speakership when the House reprimanded him last January for misleading the ethics committee, Gingrich answered, “Oh sure, of course. … I mean, it was very painful, it was very hard to go through this kind of experience in public, to have the TV cameras out there all day every day.”
He said conservative critics who say he and other GOP leaders gave up too much in their budget deal with the White House are living in a “fantasy world” in which Republicans control both the presidency and Congress.
“It’s fine to say here’s my ideal utopian answer but Bill Clinton is president,” he said.
Gingrich predicted the budget plan would eventually pass, although “there’s going to be a lot of sniping and a lot of people who have perfect vision of how they would run the country if it was a dictatorship.”
On one smoldering issue, the refusal of the GOP chairmen of the House and Senate taxwriting committees to guarantee that Clinton gets $35 billion in tax breaks for higher education, Gingrich said he can only recommend, but not dictate, how the tax cut bill will take shape.
But he said he was confident the final product “will include a very major component for education.”
Gingrich also lectured conservative colleagues about dismantling affirmative action programs, which he favors, without recognizing that a black or Hispanic child growing up in a poor community doesn’t have the same opportunities to succeed as other American youth.