TIME On Politics:
Britian to China: The Big Handover (6/30/97)
One Country, Many Systems: Inside China (6/30/97)
Withdrawing MFN Won't Change China
House Approves Normal Trade Status For China
The vote supports the president's policy
By R. Morris Barrett/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (June 23) -- After heated debate, the House today approved President Bill Clinton's policy to extend most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status to China for another year. Critics highlighted China's worsening human rights record, while advocates stressed the advantages of engaging Beijing.
The White House had closely monitored the vote, which aides said beforehand was too close to call. In the end, however, the tally was fairly lopsided with only 179 voting for a resolution to revoke MFN and 259 voting against it.
Though spirited, the debate was mostly absent partisanship, with Democrats and Republicans joining forces on both sides of the question. All stressed the need to address issues that plague U.S.-China relations: Beijing's continued human rights abuses; its continued military build-up; its weapons sales to Iran; Hong Kong's transition back to mainland sovereignty on June 30; and the United States' burgeoning trade deficit with China, which this year is approaching $50 billion.
Appeasement Vs. Engagement
But the lawmakers differed on how to change Beijing's policies.
"To withdraw normal trade relations is to declare economic warfare against China," declared Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, the ranking member of the House International Affairs Committee. "We cannot declare economic war against China and then expect China to play by our rules on political security and proliferation and human rights matters." (256K wav sound)
MFN foes countered that the policy of engagement had failed.
"Enough is enough is enough," declared New York GOP Rep. Gerald Solomon. "If ever there was a policy out of touch with reality it is our current policy of appeasement towards communist China.
"This rogue, vicious dictatorship commits murder, it commits rapes, and intimidates countries with missiles. It makes aggressive land grabs, makes veiled threats of nuclear attacks," Solomon said. "And the proponents of engagement are worried about us making unfriendly acts. What an outrage, Mister Speaker, what a deep offense to the victims of this regime." (192K wav sound)
Somewhat of a misnomer, "most-favored-nation" trade status essentially amounts to normal trade status, which all but six rogue nations enjoy. Under the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment governing relations with communist nations, however, China's trade status must be approved each year by the president.
All presidents have done so since 1980, citing the importance of engaging China's rulers rather than cutting them off. Since Beijing's brutal crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, however, that policy has become more controversial, with a determined group of lawmakers and activists -- including human rights groups, labor unions, and recently, Christian conservatives -- seeking to revoke normal trading ties.
Do economic sanctions work?
Putting more space between himself and Democratic heir-apparent Al Gore, House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt took on the Clinton Administration policy, saying that sanctions had helped bring an end to apartheid in South Africa and should now be applied to China.
"If we don't stand for freedom in China, who will?" he asked. "If we don't lead for freedom in China, who will follow? When will we start this fight as we started it with South Africa? Maybe we start it tonight," he said. (288K wav sound)
But MFN supporters dismissed the efficacy of sanctions, while warning against any actions that might weaken Hong Kong as the colony reverts to mainland control June 30.
"We've realized sanctions don't work," declared Republican Bob Livingston of Louisiana, adding, "The worst thing that we could be doing is cutting off MFN now before we find out what happens to the people of Hong Kong."
House Ways and Means chairman Bill Archer offered a more nuanced support of normal trade with China: "Maybe MFN for China is not a good policy until, as [Winston] Churchill would have said about democracy, you consider all of the other alternatives. And those who oppose MFN for China do not really consider the other less attractive by far alternatives."
A new factor in this year's debate was the ongoing controversy over Democratic fund-raising and the allegations that Chinese officials attempted to funnel cash to U.S. candidates. MFN opponent Rep. Frank Wolf suggested former Democratic fund-raiser Charlie Trie, who is rumored to be sequestered in China, and Democratic donors at the Indonesian Lippo Group, were watching the debate closely.
"They've had an influence on this policy," Wolf charged. "They have, with money, attempted and have been successful in influencing this government and indirectly this body."
Wolf and others compared China to the former Soviet Union, which was denied normal trade status. "They have more slave labor in China then they had in the Soviet Union when 'Gulag Archipeligo' was written by [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn."
MFN supporters warned that some 170,000 jobs and billions of dollars in future trade would be jeopardized by downgrading China's trade status. Other nations would simply step in to fill the void, Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania said, amounting to "the greatest windfall that we would have bestowed on our European competitors since the Marshall Plan."
Pointing out that trade with China amounts to less than two percent of U.S. exports, while America trade is 30 percent of China's exports, Solomon contended, "We clearly have the upper hand" in the trade relationship.
The White House on Monday released a thick stack of high-profile endorsements from such figures as former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush, who predicted that denying MFN would "drastically limit our ability to influence China in favorable directions."
Another sign that the vote would go the administration's way was the grudging endorsement of most-favored-nation status by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Gingrich announced his support after the White House assured him that it would back alternative human rights initiatives, including increased U.S. radio broadcasts to China.
Although the measure being considered today only needed a simple majority to pass, it needed a two-thirds majority to evade a certain presidential veto. Given the House result, the Senate is unlikely to consider the issue.
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