Trading China

By Sanghvi, Saurabh | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Trading China

Sanghvi, Saurabh, Harvard International Review

PNTR and Democracy

On September 2000, the US Senate voted 83-15 for a controversial to extend permanent normal trading relations (PNTR) status to China.

The bill effectively guaranteed China equal trading status with the United States; PNTR meant that this status no longer had to be renewed annually. Proponents of this move, largely the free-trade centrists of both major US parties, argued that PNTR would improve both economies, ease tensions, and even foster improvements in China's human-rights policies. Opponents from both the left and the right argued that granting PNTR was tantamount to appeasement and would only condone China's flouting of human rights and democracy.

In truth, beyond merely providing an opportunity to take economic advantage of the world's largest market, the granting of PNTR is a marked departure from the more antagonistic US policies of the past and is a crucial step in establishing sounder relations and spurring democratic change in China.

During detente, Sino-US relations flourished as both states found themselves united against the Soviet Union. Yet as this enemy disintegrated, so too did the relationship. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, congressional Democrats urged US President George Bush to intensify pressure on the Chinese government to change its policies on human rights, arms sales, and other issues. Specifically, Congress supported linking the issue of human rights with China's annually reviewed Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status: if China did not comply with certain deadlines in improving its human-rights situation, it would lose MFN status and face high tariffs on exports to the United States. Linking was ultimately implemented in 1993 under US President Bill Clinton.

The results were disastrous. In retaliation to what it saw as nothing less than belligerent provocation, the Chinese government jailed a number of dissidents, and Sino-US relations soured. Consequently, Clinton was forced to renege on his policy, and trade status and human rights were delinked in 1994. Clinton then became one of the strongest proponents for normalized trade relations. Even so, the Sino-US relationship continued to erode as the Clinton administration failed to provide a coherent policy toward China, instead dealing with different situations on what seemed to be a case-by-case basis.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration's missteps stoked the flames of anti-US sentiment in China. In 1996, five former pro-democracy Chinese intellectuals published the book China Can Say No, which marked a profound reversal of opinion-a shift from hailing Western ideals in 1989 to, seven years later, a renewed urging for Chinese assertiveness and for independence from the "ways of the West." The authors stridently opposed Clinton's initial approach to the region, arguing that "America is seen as bestowing favors upon China and, for that reason, gains the right and obligation to intervene in the Chinese historical process.

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