The Common Good
May-June 2000

A Blank Check for China?

by Jim Rice | May-June 2000

China is the current battleground---as Seattle was last fall---over the rules of global trade.

The current debate about trade with China is a perfect illustration of the double standards (and double talk) that permeate U.S. foreign policy. The Clinton administration wants to end the annual review of China’s trade status, arguing that increased business relations will improve human rights in the communist nation.

The administration, of course, makes exactly the opposite argument when it comes to Cuba, for which the U.S. government has nothing but contempt and economic sanctions, at least as long as Castro is in power and Cuban expatriates carry such weight in Florida politics (and presidential primaries).

But China is a special case, not the least because of its sheer size. The business community drools over the prospect of all those new customers. One only has to imagine the captains of industry humming their mantra—"a billion Cokes a day"—to see why U.S. business consortiums are lobbying so hard to opening China’s door to international commerce.

China currently enjoys "normal trade relations" (which used to be called "most favored nation" status) with the United States. But each year, that status comes up for congressional renewal. In one of those lovely quirks of timing, the annual review coincides with the anniversary of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, thus providing the opportunity for an annual discussion and debate centered (usually) on human rights and not just dollars-and-cents.

Human rights, unfortunately, isn’t what makes the world go ‘round. As AFL-CIO head John Sweeney said, "It is insane that under the rules governing worldwide trade today you can take action against a company for pirating a Madonna videotape, but you can take no action against a company for employing children, or using forced labor, or violating workers’ fundamental rights, or poisoning the environment."

That, of course, was exactly the point of the Battle in Seattle during last fall’s WTO meeting. The AFL-CIO—along with (generally conservative) defenders of religious freedom—is leading the opposition to permanent normal trade status, for all of the above reasons, but also because China denies workers the right to organize and pays them wages that undercut U.S. workers. Sweeney called the upcoming trade-relations vote "a vote over whether to accelerate the race to the bottom in the global economy."

President Clinton claims that keeping the annual review "would be a gift to the hard-liners in China’s government, who don’t want their country to be part of the world...the same people whose first instinct, in the face of opposition, is to throw people in prison."

But does trade promote human rights? Nixon went to China in 1972, and Carter further normalized relations; such overtures haven’t seemed to help further democracy. This past year has seen China step up efforts to enter into new trade relations with the world. At the same time, according to the State Department’s annual country report for 1999, China’s "poor human rights record deteriorated markedly throughout the year, as the government intensified efforts to suppress dissent." Its human rights record is exactly why China has been on probation and has warranted the annual review. Nothing in recent years has changed that, except perhaps Clinton’s desire to add to his "legacy."

BUT CHINA COULD BE Clinton’s biggest political blunder. China is a wedge issue that splits both parties—not from each other, but asunder. And it threatens to hurt Democrats the most, as Al Gore is stuck trying to convince labor audiences that he’ll work to "renegotiate" the deal even as he promises business leaders his support for the NAFTA-for-China arrangement.

U.S. labor leaders, in particular the new generation of leaders like Sweeney, do care about human rights abroad. But labor’s number one priority is looking after the well-being of the American workforce, and a "blank check" for China (as the AFL-CIO calls the permanent normal trade status) would be another crippling blow for U.S. workers. How do you compete with Chinese-made goods produced by workers in forced labor camps or those earning 13 cents an hour? The answer is, you can’t, especially if workers here are paid a livable wage. (Remember Ross Perot’s "giant sucking sound" of the U.S. jobs that would be sent southward due to NAFTA? With China, we’re talking 1.2 billion vacuums.)

The fight isn’t just about trade with China, as important as that is. This is just the current battleground—as Seattle was last fall—over the rules of global trade as we enter the new century. Are human rights, environmental protection, and equitable treatment of workers going to be part of the picture? Or will the bottom line be the only bottom line? With stakes this high, you know this struggle has just begun.

JIM RICE is managing editor of Sojourners.

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