Foreign Policy Research Institute
A Catalyst for Ideas
Mixed Verdict on China
by Harvey Sicherman
26 May 2000
This essay was first published by
ChinaOnline on May 25, 2000. Copyright ChinaOnline (www.chinaonline.com).
Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is President of the Foreign
Policy Research Institute and a former aide to three U.S. secretaries of state. He is
co-editor, with Murray Weidenbaum, of "The Chinese Economy: A New Scenario"
(FPRI Report, 1999) and co-author, with Alexander M. Haig, Jr., of "New Directions in
U.S.-China Relations" (FPRI Report, 1997).
Reprinted with permission from FPRI, 1528
Walnut Street, Suite 610, Philadelphia, PA 19102-3684. For membership information, contact
Alan Luxenberg at 215- 732-3774, ext. 105 or email@example.com
Mixed Verdict on China
by Harvey Sicherman
The 237-197 vote in the U.S. House of
Representatives in favor of permanent normal trade status (PNTR) for China was about many
things, trade itself sometimes the least of it. In the end, the majority decided to ratify
a twenty-year-old American approach that equates more trade with a more open and
prosperous PRC hopefully bound for a democratic future. But even the staunchest advocates
of this policy are uneasy about it, and the fissures evident in the vote itself show that
the issue is far from settled.
Much of the drama was provided unintentionally by President Clinton's conduct of
relations with Beijing. Having begun his term seven years ago by exalting the economic
dimensions of foreign policy to the highest level, he now concludes it the same way. In
between, however, Clinton linked trade with human rights, then delinked it; proclaimed
"strategic partnership" with Beijing, then nearly came to war in the Taiwan
Strait; and eagerly sought to bring the PRC into the World Trade Organization only to
refuse China's best offer a year ago. A man more skilled at managing crises, many of his
own making, than setting strategy, Clinton's touch was visible from start to finish.
The run-up to the PNTR was a good illustration. By now the story is well known of how
Zhu Rongji brought the President an unexpectedly good WTO deal in April 1999, confident of
Washington's signals that the market opening measures would be accepted for the Chinese
concessions they were. But Clinton had just come off the impeachment crisis, heavily
indebted to the Congressional Democrats; he was also waging war in Kosovo. Moreover, as a
President adept at stealing the Republicans' issues, he was acutely aware of his own
party's opposition to free trade deals. (In 1994, he had had to rely on Republican votes
to pass NAFTA.) So on this occasion, the President judged that the time was unripe for a
struggle. An astonished Zhu Rongji then publicly lobbied against him and in a few days,
Clinton reversed himself, but not in time to rescue the deal. Then came delay, followed by
the Chinese Embassy bombing, to be succeeded by yet more negotiation.
All of this gave the opposition, especially among American labor unions, lots of time
to organize. What appeared bad timing to the White House in spring 1999 became disastrous
timing in spring 2000 with the onset of presidential politicking. Vice-President Gore lost
his enthusiasm for PNTR when he needed AFL-CIO support to defeat an unexpected challenge
from Senator Bill Bradley in the party primaries. Then, at Seattle, the President himself
rattled his colleagues when he sympathized visibly with the demonstrators against the WTO.
The Republicans could indulge this only so far and their leaders signalled that they would
not carry the vote unless Clinton recruited more of his party to the cause. All of this
encouraged China's critics.
The Democrats, already divided by free trade, were even more conflicted on China
policy. Human rightists, environmentalists, and unionists, each a significant Democratic
constituency, all see China as the enemy. Some Republicans also fear China. But the GOP
had less of a problem not only because of their business support, but because the
"opening to China" bears a Republican patent.
Last, and far from least, one lobby influential with both sides wanted China in the
WTO. This was Taiwan. And for once, the Taiwanese and their opponents in Beijing were able
to avoid spitting in the soup. It did not start out that way. The late summer of 1999 was
marked by high tension after ROC President Lee Teng-hui enunciated a "two-state"
doctrine that challenged the hoary One-China theology. Then Beijing warned the Taiwanese
voters not to elect the pro- independence DPP candidate as their next president. But they
did; and the U.S. Congress riposted the Chinese threats with an enhanced arms package,
which Clinton promised to veto. These darkening clouds were dispelled when Taiwan's new
President, Chen Shui-bian, proved a capable theologian. His May 20th inaugural speech gave
enough to reassure Washington and Beijing that he would not create a crisis over One
The Republican president contender, George W. Bush, also did his part. His major
foreign policy speech in November 1999 described China as a "competitor"; more
recently he has explained that competitor did not necessarily mean adversary. By endorsing
the bill Bush also claimed the mantle of the "opening to China" worn by every
Republican president since Nixon.
All of the strings were eventually pulled. Gore announced his unqualified support of
PNTR on April 30 buried inside a general foreign policy speech. The President also
thoroughly plied the fence-sitters, using the usual blandishments; after all, this was
going to be his legacy. (Clinton delivered 73 Democrats, the number required by the GOP
leadership.) The Republicans mostly rejected the arguments of would-be new Cold Warriors.
And both Taipei and Beijing proved they could be pragmatic in the common interest. These
were the very elements that had been missing, in whole or in part, through much of the
previous seven difficult years.
The House debate itself, while intense, showed that each side's main arguments had
serious flaws. Those in favor had a good case when they stuck to details; after all, PNTR
lays the burden for opening new markets on China. It was harder to trace the connection
between trade and democracy because China's political evolution is an erratic zig-zag, not
a straight line.
Those against PNTR were equally unable to show that twenty years of annual votes on
China's trading status made a convincing piece of leverage. Neither Tiananmen Square
(1989) nor the Strait crisis of 1996 lost China its position. It was even more difficult
to persuade Congress that the American economy, at full throttle, would lose from the
opportunity to sell more to China.
Finally, some Representatives relished the annual opportunity to roast China. For them,
a special commission was created. This small forum won't be the same as the House Chamber;
but it will have to do.
Yesterday's triumph, however, is no guarantee of tomorrow's success. The verdict on
China policy continues to be mixed. The vote proved that a President could still assemble
a bipartisan consensus but the "consensus," unlike the Cold War era, needs
enormous tending and can never be taken for granted. When all is said and done, the
intensely technical PNTR cannot by itself promise to lubricate the major points of
friction between the U.S. and the PRC: it may, or may not, lead to a China more respectful
of human rights; it may, or may not, be a precursor to a less stressful cross- strait
relationship; it may, or may not, improve the lopsided imbalance of trade between the U.S.
and China. PNTR (and WTO membership) is essentially a Chinese promissory note to abide by
rules allowing a greater foreign role in its economy, a big step forward in China's
dramatic reengagement with the world, largely under U.S. auspices. Those who voted yes did
so without illusions; those who voted no have not given up the fight; and a very rocky
road may lie ahead. But for now, those hopeful about China outnumber their opponents in