Congress has been debating a bill that would "normalize" trade with China. What are the major arguments on each side of the debate?

The United States' trade relations with China have been particularly controversial since the Tianenmen Square Massacre in 1989. Many Americans have argued that the United States should not engage in economic exchange with China so long as that nation continues to heap human rights abuses on its people. Others have argued that normal trade relations with China makes China more economically prosperous and more inclined to respect the rights of Chinese citizens.

In a series of votes over the past several years, both Republicans and Democrats have voted to extend China "Most Favored Nation" or MFN trade status with the United States. These enactments have established normal trade relations with China for finite time periods and have required the Congress to readdress the issue on a regular basis. The proposal currently under consideration would grant China "Permanent Normal Trade Relations" or PNTR status to China, a prerequisite for China's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Once again, the debate has put China's human rights record on center stage in the United States Congress. Also at issue, however, is the likely impact of PNTR status for China on the American economy. Will American workers suffer through job migration to China? Or will expanded trade with China bolster and already strong U.S. economy?

Human Rights and Trade

As noted, many have argued that it is wrong to engage in trade relations that are economically beneficial to China while the Chinese government abuses the rights of its people. Early in the first Clinton Administration, efforts were made to more closely tie MFN status for China to China's human rights record. Many in Congress, primarily Democrats, sought to end normal trade relations with China unless significant improvements were made on the part of the Chinese government.

Both Republicans and Democrats have been concerned with Chinese persecution of religious minorities in both China and Tibet, with China's poor record on political liberty and legal due process. In general, however, members of the two parties disagree with the best way to remedy these problems. Democrats argue that China must be forced or at least influenced by the nations of the world to change its ways through economic sanctions. By refusing to grant China normalized trade relations, a strong message can be sent to China that if it wants to be a full partner with other nations in the world economy, it must demonstrate a basic minimum level of respect for the rights of its people.

In contrast, others argue that cutting off trade with China would further isolate the largest nation in the world, perhaps driving it to more severe human rights abuses while seriously damaging the ability of other nations (including the United States) to influence Chinese policy through traditional diplomatic channels. By granting full, permanent trade status to China, many believe that China would voluntarily change its human rights practices to bring itself in line with the community of nations.

PNTR for China and the U.S. Economy

Even if China's human rights record were pristine, some members of Congress would oppose PNTR for China because they believe it would be harmful to U.S. workers and the U.S. Economy The same political leaders who have been critical of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are generally opposed to granting PNTR status to China because they fear that doing so would cost Americans jobs. If American manufacturers are able to move factories and jobs to China at lower costs, many fear that U.S. corporations will cut jobs in the United States and hire workers in China.

Supporters of PNTR with China, however, argue that it would be lower-paying jobs that are exported to China, as has been the case with NAFTA. Moreover, they argue, the American economic base would be enormously expanded if U.S. businesses had access to the markets and consumers in the worlds most populated nation. The increased demand for American products would require more American jobs, not fewer of them.

The Politics of U.S.-China Trade Policy

The current debate over the United States' trade policy with China is a reflection of both old and new political dynamics in America. The long-standing political dividing line between business and labor is readily discernible, with labor Democrats opposing the PNTR for China and business Republicans supporting it. Not surprisingly, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush is enthusiastically supportive of PNTR for China. However, President Clinton, a Democrat, is the architect of the policy and Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore has been reluctant to reject the proposal outright. Indeed, many Democrats are inclined to support normalized trade with China on the strength of arguments suggesting such a policy would be economically beneficial to the United States. At the same time, there are Republicans who are opposed to the proposal because of their lingering concerns about Chinese human rights failures.

As is often true in American politics, most political leaders are lining up according to traditional dividing lines between the political parties. However, keeping with another long-standing American tradition, many politicians are defying these dividing lines and taking positions that are more in conformity with their own beliefs and interests and those of their constituents. As Dick Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House asserted in a recent speech in his Missouri district,

No one is immune any longer from the revolutionary changes that have transformed our economy, and no American has the luxury to ignore the important forces that are bringing the world closer together. . . . Global issues have a local impact and require the involvement of every citizen if we want to successfully change the terms of the debate that is going on in Washington to ensure that our global trading system serves American values and interests.

Indeed, the day is gone when Americans had the luxury of watching the actions of other nations from the sidelines. The interests of other nations and those of the United States are highly intertwined in today's increasingly global economy. If America's people want their values and interests reflected in current and future debates about America's role in the world economy maintained, they must be much better informed and much more involved than they have traditionally been.