China Trade Expedience … and Angst

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

President Bush recently notified Congress that he will extendnormal trade relations with China for another year. "Open trade isa force for freedom in China, a force for stability in Asia and aforce for prosperity in the United States," Mr. Bush said.

Meanwhile, China hawks in Congress, chief among them Rep. DanaRohrabacher, California Republican, promise a renewed effort torepeal normal trade relations in a vote later this summer, pointingto China's hostile rhetoric during the standoff over the downedU.S. surveillance plane, its jailing of visiting academics and itscontinuing persecution of the Roman Catholic Church and the FalunGong religious sect. But if the aim is to send a signal to China'scommunist 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 millionsof American households that benefit from the $100 billion worth ofChinese-made clothes, shoes, toys, electronic goods and otherimports now entering the United States each year. It wouldjeopardize exports to our fourth-largest trading partner and chillAmerican investment in China. It would deprive Chinese workers ofrelatively well-paying jobs that are helping to build a moreeducated and economically independent middle class. And it would donothing to promote human rights or modify official Chinesebehavior.

Other levers exist to send an effective message to the Chineseleadership without surrendering moral high ground or inflictingcollateral damage on millions of innocent families.

First, the United States should continue to sponsor resolutionsat the United Nations condemning human rights abuses in China. WhenChina jails religious activists, academics and anyone who darescriticize the government, U.S. officials should not remain silent.There is no contradiction between trading with China's citizens anddenouncing its government's behavior. Trade encourages the growthof civil society, while diplomatic criticism deprives theauthoritarian government of the international acceptance itcraves.

Second, China should be denied the 2008 Olympics. Although theyare nominally a private-sector event, the Olympics would be used bythe Chinese government mostly for propaganda purposes. Hosting thegames confers a level of international prestige that the Chinesegovernment does not deserve. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 and theMoscow Olympics of 1980 did nothing to encourage the hostgovernments to improve their human rights records.

Third, the U.S. government should increase its contacts with thefreely elected government of Taiwan. The Chinese leadership isextremely sensitive to the slightest gestures of friendship orcooperation from the United States toward Taiwan. Consider how thecommunist leadership reacted when Taiwan's president paid a privatevisit to his alma mater, Cornell University, in 1995. The briefvisit by Taiwan's current President Chen Shui-bian to the UnitedStates in May sent an unmistakable signal to Beijing that theAmerican people retain their preference for free-marketdemocracies. More such visits should be allowed in the future.

Fourth, the U.S. government should continue to sell Taiwan themilitary hardware it needs to defend itself, consistent with the1979 Taiwan Relations Act. Taiwan's 22 million citizens have aright to defend their property and freedoms from the threat ofinvasion. What weapons to include in the package is a matter ofjudgment. But the signal to be sent is that the communistdictatorship has no moral right to force the people of Taiwan togive up self-government.

Fifth, the U.S. government should maintain full diplomaticrelations with China but not kowtow. Relations should bebusinesslike and constructive, without the unnecessary pomp ofchampagne toasts and sugarcoated flattery.

After all, we are not dealing with a representative governmentelected freely by its citizens, but an authoritarian regime thattolerates no political competition and jails people who exercisefreedom of speech, assembly and religion. Human rights should beraised at the highest levels.

Each of those levers has the virtue of being more easilycalibrated than the drastic, all-or-nothing action of revokingnormal trade relations. Contacts with Taiwan can be ratcheted up ordown in response to Chinese behavior. The tone of human rightsresolutions can be adjusted to reflect positive or negativedevelopments.

Combining normal trade relations and diplomatic pressure wouldconstitute a coherent policy of "full and constructive engagement."It would combine the exceptional American virtues of idealism andeconomic liberty, transcending a morally blind commercialism on theone hand and ineffective and self-destructive trade sanctions onthe other.