BEIJING - One of China's best known dissidents on Wednesday harshly criticized the U.S. vote to normalize trade with China, saying it will embolden China's leaders to step up repression.
The Senate's approval of permanent low-tariff trade ties with China rewards the communist government's determination to stifle free speech and political opening, said Wei Jingsheng, speaking in a telephone interview from New York, where he lives in exile.
The bill's passage ends the contentious annual reviews used as a forum to criticize Beijing ever since the military quelled the Tiananmen Square democracy movement 11 years ago - and dampens hopes among ordinary Chinese for peaceful political change in their country, Wei said.
''This tells the common people of China that the world doesn't care about their rights or livelihoods, but only about their own wallets,'' said Wei, imprisoned for 18 years in China for urging more democracy and respect for human rights.
Disgruntled Chinese workers and farmers taxed into desperate poverty may now take up more extreme measures to seek redress, he said, referring to recent instances of large-scale violence against corrupt authorities by angry farmers.
The permanent normal trade relations will ease China's entry to the World Trade Organization and open barriers to U.S. goods and services. Along the way, proponents argued, foreign ideas and a vital private sector will propel China toward democratic change.
While the trade bill sets up a special commission to monitor China's observance of human and labor rights, Wei and human rights groups criticized the panel as toothless and faulted Washington for not striking a harder bargain on rights.
Wei's opposition contrasted with the view of a dissident still living in China, who said China's greater exposure to the outside world will erode the Communist Party's grip on political debate.
''The more interaction the better,'' said Ren Wanding, a seminal figure in the dissident community who spent 11 of the past 21 years in prison.
With the greater foreign attention on China that increased trade will bring, ''the Chinese government will have to give democracy groups more freedom to speak out. Otherwise, it will lose face in front of the world,'' Ren said.
As if to prove Ren mistaken, a Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced writer Qi Yanchen to four years in prison for writing critical political articles. Another dissident, Guo Qinghai, was arrested on similar charges last week, the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported.
Tuesday's Senate approval, after a closely fought May vote in the House of Representatives, followed 10 months of often heated debate that pitted the business lobby against rights, labor and environmental groups. President Clinton, a strong supporter of the bill, must now sign it into law.
China's foreign and trade ministries welcomed approval of the trade bill as boosting U.S.-China trade and smoothing political ties. But they angrily objected to the human rights commission as a meddlesome attempt to inject politics into trade.
''For those who want to interfere in our internal affairs, that would be totally unacceptable to us,'' Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi told reporters.