A Tale of Two Cities: Washington: For Bill Clinton, the World Trade Organization Agreement with China Is a Foreign-Policy Milestone, One That Could Rank as a Great Political Achievement. That Is, If He Can Prevent a Wary Congress and Angry Labor Unions from Torpedoing the Deal

Newsweek, November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

A Tale of Two Cities: Washington: For Bill Clinton, the World Trade Organization Agreement with China Is a Foreign-Policy Milestone, One That Could Rank as a Great Political Achievement. That Is, If He Can Prevent a Wary Congress and Angry Labor Unions from Torpedoing the Deal


It was a decidedly odd way for Bill Clinton to hear the news. At about 8 a.m. on Nov. 15, the president was stepping into the shower in his hotel bathroom in Ankara, Turkey, where he was preparing for a summit of European leaders. A whole continent away, in Beijing, his China negotiators, Charlene Barshefsky and Gene Sperling, were huddling in another bathroom--the women's room on the first floor of the Chinese Trade Ministry. It was the only private place they could find to make a cellular-phone call. Just hours before, they had told Clinton that the news looked grim; there was little chance of a deal on China's entry into the World Trade Organization. The president had gone to bed somewhat downcast; a defeat would have been a personal slap in the face. He had recently pleaded with Chinese President Jiang Zemin to restart WTO talks after allowing a deal to slip away during Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's visit in April. But now, through the hiss of water in his shower, Clinton heard the voice of his personal aide, Kris Engskov, urgently calling him out.

So it was that Bill Clinton, dripping wet, learned of what may be one of his greatest foreign-policy triumphs. Clinton picked up the phone and heard Sperling, his National Economic Council chief, make the bathroom-to-bathroom connection. "Mr. President, the world's best trade negotiator has some good news for you," Sperling said. Then he handed the phone to Barshefsky. Following a dramatic last-minute intervention by Zhu, she said, the Chinese had abruptly turned around, granting numerous key concessions. Barshefsky, the unrelenting U.S. trade representative, had finally brought home a China trade deal--after 13 years of intense U.S. pressure. By the time the two negotiators made their call to Clinton, Jiang was so eager to sign that they were rushing to beat CNN with the news. Clinton, who had likened himself to an "expectant mother" during the talks, blurted out to Barshefsky, "I am so elated."

Well, he should be. In an administration that thrives on regular swings from disaster to triumph, the months of tense talks over the WTO were another "ER"-like drama (though Barshefsky at times compared Chinese tactics more to "Seinfeld"--"contentless, though not as funny"). The end result, everyone agreed, was truly historic. China must now come to a separate accord on WTO entry with the Europeans and Japanese, and Congress next year has to grant Beijing permanent "normalized" trade relations as its part of the deal. But if it all unfolds as the administration expects, China's relationship with the United States--and the rest of the globe--will be altered for good.

No one is more intent on making this deal a reality than U.S. executives. Under the terms of the trade deal, American companies in every sector will have a better chance of achieving breakthroughs in the China market than ever before. From Midwestern agribusiness to Detroit's Big Three automakers to Silicon Valley high-tech firms, American corporations in a few years will be able to sell goods to 1.2 billion people throughout China at relatively low tariffs. And they'll no longer be forced to transfer their prized technology under Beijing's harsh rules, or limit their sales to certain Chinese cities under bizarre distribution limits. Second, if Beijing adheres to the rules, WTO accession could come to be seen as the decisive moment when China finally joined the world community to stay, kowtowing to the rule of international law. And Clinton hopes the accord will quell the sniping on Capitol Hill about his ever-lurching China policy, which in seven years has gone from transparent bluffing on human rights to what critics call outright appeasement.

But this is Washington, after all. And the lines of battle are already being drawn in the capital over the China deal. Organized labor, which fears a loss of U.S. jobs to low-paid Chinese workers, plans to mount a vigorous campaign against normalized trade relations. …

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