Using Trade as Weapon Is Wrong Way to Deal with China

By Thomas Friedman Copyright New York Times News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Using Trade as Weapon Is Wrong Way to Deal with China


Thomas Friedman Copyright New York Times News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


The death of Deng Xiaoping has triggered a new round of debate on U.S.-China policy. But it's a debate that remains highly unsatisfying.

As always, the moralists make a passionate case for ratcheting up pressure on China, but they have no strategy. And the strategists make a sobering case that continued engagement with China is a U.S. interest, but they have no morality. It's time to extract ourselves from this choice.

But first, how did we get here? It started in June 1989. Shocked by the televised murder of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen, human rights advocates and Congress looked for a club to punish China's leaders. They opted for threatening to withdraw China's most-favored-nation trade benefits if China didn't release jailed dissidents or give the Red Cross more access to them. This was the wrong club. Threatening to withdraw the trade benefits hurt U.S. business as much as China. So China found it easy to go to U.S. corporations and ask: "Are you ready to sacrifice your interests so a few troublemakers are released from jail?" Since the answer was a loud "No," the Chinese easily divided and paralyzed the United States into two rival camps. Worse, the human rights debate got reduced to a matter of most-favored-nation trade status. This suited China, because once it got the administration to set aside the trade club, China had clear sailing. Human rights activists had no other means for influencing China and became irrelevant. But while human rights and business groups were screaming at each other, they both lost sight of developments in China. Many Chinese reformers started reacting negatively to the U.S. human rights debate because it was so focused on a few dissidents that it ignored those Chinese who were working within the system - bureaucrats, lawyers, factory managers - to advance the rule of law, something the Chinese government, for its own reasons, also had an interest in doing. For example, says Jonathan Hecht, a research fellow at Harvard Law School and a Chinese-speaking consultant to the Lawyers Committee For Human Rights: "The real guts of the Chinese government's arbitrary powers reside in administrative law. Since Tiananmen, China has actually enacted new administrative laws that allow Chinese to sue their government, to seek compensatory damages and to establish limits on the range of penalties that bureaucrats can impose on people. …

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