The United States and China have worked out a deal that would open the Chinese economy to foreign competitors. The accord would also make Beijing a full partner in the world's trading system.
Washington, 17 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If China is allowed to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), its case will be a precedent for WTO membership of the former communist countries of Europe and Central Asia.
Many of these nations have very little trade with China today, so China's membership in the WTO will have very little immediate impact in that area.
But Claude Barfield, an expert in economic affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, says there is a more important aspect to the deal China and the U.S. struck in Beijing on Monday.
"China is a big so-called 'non-market' economy, or transitional economy, which is the same state that these countries are in. So the precedents that are set in the accession protocol for China will obviously be carried over when you get to Ukraine, to Russia and other former Soviet states."
Barfield told RFE/RL that once these states are in the WTO, their trade horizons will expand greatly -- and they will eventually reap the additional benefit of trade with China itself.
Despite these benefits, there is much debate about U.S. President Bill Clinton's argument that admitting China to the group eventually would lead to an improvement in Beijing's human rights record.
Clinton's critics say he should punish Beijing, not reward it with his policy of engagement. They argue that all efforts to draw China into the world economic community have simply meant riches for the few at the top, while the government maintains dictatorial control over its people.
Others, and not necessarily Clinton's political supporters, say these critics have not been following China's progress closely, and they applaud the trade agreement.
Catharin Dalpino, a visiting fellow in Asian affairs at the Brookings Institution, another Washington think-tank, says China needs no prodding to begin improving its human rights record when Deng Xiao-Ping was China's premier.
"China has been working on movement toward a rule of law since the late 1970s. Part of Deng Xiao-Ping's economic reforms did include some legal reforms and some administrative reforms."
Dalpino concedes that these reforms have not led to a Western-style legal system, but she stresses that Deng and his successors have kept them in mind as they move China into the economic and political mainstream and away from the Marxist zeal of Mao Zedong.
"Citizens of China can now sue their government or sue their employer, which would certainly have been unthinkable during the Mao era."
But Barfield, of the American Enterprise Institute, says the Clinton administration should be pressing for strict conditions on human rights for China's admission to the WTO.
"Well, what I think is that you could have done more to have pressed that by making it [human rights] a condition of membership."
Dalpino agrees that a Western-style rule of law may not come easy in China.
"I think that the only cure-all is the one the Chinese can themselves apply. I think this will -- this will certainly strengthen the hand of reformers. But in any reform process, there are winners and losers, and how China handles the losers will be very important -- not only in terms of whether a WTO membership can succeed, but also on whether political reform towards greater openness will also succeed."
Meanwhile, China's deal with the U.S. is far from complete. The U.S. Congress does not have to ratify the agreement itself, but it must vote to end its annual review of America's trade relations with Beijing, and give China permanent status as a normal trading partner.
And even if Congress acts in China's favor -- and does so quickly -- China likely will not become a WTO member by Nov. 30, the first day of the organization's ministerial meetings beginning in western U.S. city of Seattle.
Any of the 135 members of the WTO can veto a country's entry into the organization, and Beijing still must secure trade agreements with the European Union (EU) and Canada. But the importance of the U.S. agreement with China is such that these deals should come easily, and the rest of the WTO membership will follow suit.