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China: U.S. Nears Granting Normal Trade Status

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to grant permanent normal trade relations to China. Many in Congress doubted whether China could be a trustworthy trading partner. But RFE/RL's Andrew F. Tully reports that they were won over -- in part by a very persuasive President Bill Clinton.

Washington, 25 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- China has come one step closer to full integration into the world economy.

Late Wednesday, the House of Representatives, the lower house of the U.S. Congress, voted to grant China permanent normal trade relations. The debate on the issue was emotional, and there was no way to anticipate how the vote would go. The Senate will vote on the bill next week, and passage there is virtually assured.

China's next step is to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), which administers a global treaty on trade regulations. That, too, is almost certain to happen.

The bill would make China a trading partner with the same access to American markets as those enjoyed by any other U.S. trading partner. China already has that access, but since 1980 it must be renewed every year by Congress. Each year, Congress examines China's record on human rights, and most members denounce the Beijing government's treatment of many of its own citizens. Yet each year, Congress has extended China's normal trade status for another year.

Americans have been deeply divided over the issue. And it has led to odd alliances between members of the two principal political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact, three consecutive presidents -- Republicans Ronald Reagan and George Bush, and the current president, Bill Clinton, a Democrat -- have worked hard to get this trade bill passed.

Opponents of the legislation include Democrats who favor labor unions. They say the measure would allow U.S. companies to move operations to China, where workers are paid low wages. They also accuse the Beijing government of religious intolerance and other human rights abuses.

One of these Democrats is Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri, his party's leader in the House. He made his point emphatically in Wednesday's debate before the vote.

"Some would argue that this is just about trade. I would remind them that our greatest export is not our products and our services. Our greatest exports are our ideals and our values."

Other opponents are Republicans who are vehemently anti-communist. They say China should not be "rewarded" -- as they put it -- for its totalitarian policies and factories run by the army. One such opponent is Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of California.

"This is not a vote about severing ties with China or isolating China, which is absurd. And this isn't even about trade with China, frankly -- just free trade, anyway. It's about a specific trade policy -- and policies -- of the United States government in dealing with one of the world's most powerful dictatorships."

Supporters counter that normal trade with China would mean that China would buy more American goods -- a benefit for American workers. And they say to deny normal trade status would isolate China and leave it more firmly entrenched in its totalitarian ways. To grant it permanent normal trade relations would do the opposite. One such supporter is Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from Florida.

"In a global world, authoritarian regimes cannot long survive the impact of freedom and free markets. Engaging China, exposing China to the sunlight of free-market economies and democratic values is the best way to bring about evolution toward freedom in China."

Other supporters of the bill reversed the contention that America must export its values, along with its goods and services. They say that America can trade in ideas with China, just as it trades in automobiles or computers. Congresswoman Judy Biggert, a Republican from California, made this argument.

"The 'yes' vote you cast today is not a vote for China, it is a vote for the United States. It is not a vote to allow China into our market; China is already in our market. Rather it is a vote to allow our workers, our farmers, our investors, ideals and ingenuity to compete successfully in the world market."

Two weeks ago (May 9), Clinton made a similar plea, saying that passing the China trade bill would help export American human rights ideals to China. At the time, the president for the first time noted that a good reason to support the legislation is to counter those in China who do not want their country to have normal trade relations with America.

"Who's against it in China? The people who run the state-owned industries and don't want to give up their control. The more conservative elements of the military who would like to have greater tension between ourselves and them and between ourselves -- between themselves, excuse me, and the people of Taiwan. It is truly ironic."

Clinton can be persuasive, but it was not until Tuesday that he felt confident enough about the China-trade bill to say that he predicted passage of the bill. But the president repeated this message about reactionaries in China opposing the legislation until just before the vote. Perhaps it was this message that was the most persuasive.