China Trade Expedience … and Angst

June 27, 2001 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Washington Times on June 27, 2001.

President Bush recently notified Congress that he will extend normal trade relations with China for another year. “Open trade is a force for freedom in China, a force for stability in Asia and a force for prosperity in the United States,” Mr. Bush said.

Meanwhile, China hawks in Congress, chief among them Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, promise a renewed effort to repeal normal trade relations in a vote later this summer, pointing to China’s hostile rhetoric during the standoff over the downed U.S. surveillance plane, its jailing of visiting academics and its continuing persecution of the Roman Catholic Church and the Falun Gong religious sect. But if the aim is to send a signal to China’s communist leaders, revoking NTR is among the worst ways to do so. Other policy instruments are available and more effective.

Revoking NTR would be a disaster. It would harm tens of millions of American households that benefit from the $100 billion worth of Chinese‐​made clothes, shoes, toys, electronic goods and other imports now entering the United States each year. It would jeopardize exports to our fourth‐​largest trading partner and chill American investment in China. It would deprive Chinese workers of relatively well‐​paying jobs that are helping to build a more educated and economically independent middle class. And it would do nothing to promote human rights or modify official Chinese behavior.

Other levers exist to send an effective message to the Chinese leadership without surrendering moral high ground or inflicting collateral damage on millions of innocent families.

First, the United States should continue to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations condemning human rights abuses in China. When China jails religious activists, academics and anyone who dares criticize the government, U.S. officials should not remain silent. There is no contradiction between trading with China’s citizens and denouncing its government’s behavior. Trade encourages the growth of civil society, while diplomatic criticism deprives the authoritarian government of the international acceptance it craves.

Second, China should be denied the 2008 Olympics. Although they are nominally a private‐​sector event, the Olympics would be used by the Chinese government mostly for propaganda purposes. Hosting the games confers a level of international prestige that the Chinese government does not deserve. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 and the Moscow Olympics of 1980 did nothing to encourage the host governments to improve their human rights records.

Third, the U.S. government should increase its contacts with the freely elected government of Taiwan. The Chinese leadership is extremely sensitive to the slightest gestures of friendship or cooperation from the United States toward Taiwan. Consider how the communist leadership reacted when Taiwan’s president paid a private visit to his alma mater, Cornell University, in 1995. The brief visit by Taiwan’s current President Chen Shui‐​bian to the United States in May sent an unmistakable signal to Beijing that the American people retain their preference for free‐​market democracies. More such visits should be allowed in the future.

Fourth, the U.S. government should continue to sell Taiwan the military hardware it needs to defend itself, consistent with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Taiwan’s 22 million citizens have a right to defend their property and freedoms from the threat of invasion. What weapons to include in the package is a matter of judgment. But the signal to be sent is that the communist dictatorship has no moral right to force the people of Taiwan to give up self‐​government.

Fifth, the U.S. government should maintain full diplomatic relations with China but not kowtow. Relations should be businesslike and constructive, without the unnecessary pomp of champagne toasts and sugarcoated flattery.

After all, we are not dealing with a representative government elected freely by its citizens, but an authoritarian regime that tolerates no political competition and jails people who exercise freedom of speech, assembly and religion. Human rights should be raised at the highest levels.

Each of those levers has the virtue of being more easily calibrated than the drastic, all‐​or‐​nothing action of revoking normal trade relations. Contacts with Taiwan can be ratcheted up or down in response to Chinese behavior. The tone of human rights resolutions can be adjusted to reflect positive or negative developments.

Combining normal trade relations and diplomatic pressure would constitute a coherent policy of “full and constructive engagement.” It would combine the exceptional American virtues of idealism and economic liberty, transcending a morally blind commercialism on the one hand and ineffective and self‐​destructive trade sanctions on the other.

About the Author
Daniel Griswold
Former Director, Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies