As the House was preparing to debate the China trade bill on May 24, Representative Bill Archer, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, warned his colleagues: "This vote will be the most important vote that we cast in our congressional careers."
That overstatement was not singular. Rhetorical exaggeration was the preferred and nonpartisan style in this debate. Mr. Archer, for instance, argued that the bill would create "hundreds of thousands of new jobs and enhance our national security." That echoed a claim that President Clinton has often made.
The general public has been quite evenly divided on this question of granting China permanent normal trade relations. Polls taken this spring indicated that half of those surveyed were not in favor. There were and are powerful lobbies on both sides. Many members of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. opposed permanent status until China actually opens all its markets and stops repressing its workers. Farming interests and business companies pushed for passage of the bill because they were sure it would quickly give them expanded access to the Chinese markets.
ýt was up to the House to untie this knotty foreign policy issue, but its members also had to keep their own reelection in mind. As Representative John M. Sweeney, a Republican from upstate New York, said when explaining to a New York Times reporter why he finally decided to go with the bill, "In the end, you always vote your district."
As it turned out, the farmers and the merchants had the greater muscle. The bill giving China normal trade rights passed by a vote of 237 to 197. The debate was, however, an experience worth filing. It may prove useful in the future, because the story of trading relations with China is marked "to be continued."
The Chinese leaders very much wanted the bill to be passed, and it can be assumed that Congress takes Beijing seriously. China will soon occupy a position of enormous power in the world. Chinese cooperation is necessary for the preservation of peaceful international relations, and entry into Chinese markets may be necessary to maintain the dynamism of the U.S. economy.
For the past 20 years, the promotion of free trade has been a basic principle of U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes it has been successful and sometimes, as in Russia, it has not. In any case, this principle was not contested on the House floor in May.
Opponents of the bill were not against trading with China; they were against making China’s favorable trade status permanent at this time. For the past 10 years, renewal of that status has been subject to an annual Congressional review that provided an opportunity for raising the question of Beijing’s suppression of human rights. "I vote every year for trade with China," said Representative Joe Moakley, a Massachusetts Democrat, but "if we give it permanent status, then we’re not going to have any leverage when we talk about human rights abuses."
The U.S. Catholic bishops share Mr. Moakley’s view. In his role as chairman of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Committee on International Policy, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston sent a letter to every member of the House on April 12. In that letter he carefully noted that during the past two years there has been in China, according to all indications, "a marked deterioration in the area of human rights and religious freedom." The letter closed with the judgment that "a decision now to forgo on a permanent basis the annual review and debate on these issues could be seen as an abandonment of U.S. concern for religious liberty and human rights."
That decision to forgo was made. The measure did, however, include an amendment providing that a 23-member commission be set up to monitor human rights in China. Beijing found passage of the bill to be "wise" but predictably denounced the amendment.
Despite firm predictions from all quarters, no one knows what the effects of the bill will be. President Clinton thinks free trade will democratize China and thereby automatically bolster freedom. Representative David Bonior, the Michigan Democrat who is both minority whip and a stern critic of the bill, says "You can’t have a system of free markets where people aren’t free." The President himself conceded during a speech given in the Rose Garden after the victory handed him by the May 24 vote, "We know that trade alone will not bring freedom to China or peace to the world."
That leaves the next President and the next Congress with three things to do in this connection. They must continue to monitor human rights in China. They must watch what happens in U.S.-China trade relations, and they must decide how Washington is to respond if the optimistic forecasts are not met. Passage of the trade bill amounted to a bet that the results would be good. Was it a smart bet? Neither the Americans nor the Chinese yet know. But they will find out.