America is in the midst of a supposedly great debate over China policy. Congress will soon hold a seemingly momentous vote on whether to extend indefinitely China's trading rights in the United States. The Clinton administration and the business community are pressing hard, indeed desperately, for congressional approval, which they argue is necessary for American companies to reap the full benefits of Chinas expected membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Yet oddly enough, from a broader perspective, the upcoming congressional test is not nearly so important as it is commonly portrayed to be. Sheer political realism tells us that Congress will soon approve permanent normal trading rights (PNTR, as they are now called) for China, as it has already authorized one-year renewals of trade with China annually since 1980. Even if opponents in the labor movement should succeed in postponing a vote this spring, then PNTR will almost certainly be approved at the end of the year or during the early months of Al Gore's or George W. Bush's presidency, much as the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted during President Bill Clinton's first year. Put simply, the American business community's yearnings for the China market and the accompanying belief that WTO membership is the way to achieve this goal are now far too great for Congress to resist. Serious questions about whether China is ready, willing, or able to enforce the strict trading rules of the WTO are being downplayed or ignored.
The business community in particular, along with America in general, is headed for a big letdown. Ten years from now, America may well look back on this vote and China's WTO membership not as the beginning of a new relationship between China and the United States, but as the start of a new wave of disenchantment. China's membership in the WTO isn't going to open China's markets as much as America's corporate leaders dream because China won't comply with the trading rules as much as they hope. Nor will China be transformed politically by WTO membership. (Despite the naive, almost magical incantations now emanating from Silicon Valley, China's political system will not be fundamentally altered merely by access to the Internet.)
Indeed, Congress, the two presidential candidates, and the American public are unprepared for what they are about to face in China over the next few years. They are operating now with assumptions about China--namely, that the country is economically powerful and politically stable--that may have fit the country in, say, 1995. But as usual, China has been changing faster than the American images of it. And over the first years of the twenty-first century, as China changes, the politics of China in Washington will probably alter, too--in ways for which, in the fervor of the current debate, no one seems ready.
CHINA THROUGH A REARVIEW MIRROR
History is repeating itself. Both of the past two American presidents took office ready and eager to deal with the wrong China. Both found to their dismay that China had changed in ways that made most of their assumptions out of date.
In 1989 George Bush carried into the White House the views of China that he had developed during the 1970s and early 1980s. He believed that China was vital to the United States as a strategic partner against the Soviet Union, and also that China remained such a well-controlled society that questions of democracy and freedom were either premature or irrelevant. Bush's approach was epitomized by his administration's preoccupation in the spring of 1989 with arranging a U.S. Navy port call in Shanghai to coincide with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's visit to China; the White House hoped that this display would upstage Gorbachev and remind Moscow of the continuing close military links between China and the United States. By the time the port call was made, both Gorbachev and the American warships were endeavoring to be as unobtrusive as possible and to get out of China quickly, as hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. …