The Magazine

Permanent Normal Appeasement

Sep 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 01 • By ROBERT KAGAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This week the Senate will vote on granting China permanent most-favored-nation trade status. The vote comes a lot later than the Clinton administration and China's friends in the Senate wanted. Too close to the elections, you see, and therefore too likely to be infected by election-year "politics," i.e., the actual views of the American people. In poll after poll, Americans express keen distrust of China and skepticism about the benefits of extending permanent normal trade relations.

There was also the fear, expressed in mid-July by China's leading Senate defender, Max Baucus, that "the more the issue is delayed, the more likely it is that some untoward . . . event might occur that would deteriorate relations between our two countries." You know, something "untoward" like a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or some particularly brutal crackdown on political or religious groups. A majority of senators in both parties, in other words, wanted to get this vote out of the way before the next, entirely inevitable, Chinese outrage.

There has, in fact, been no shortage of outrages already. This past week the State Department reported that the Chinese government's treatment of religious groups had "deteriorated markedly" over the past year. Indeed, in recent days alone, three Falun Gong members, two of them elderly, have died after being arrested by the police. One mysteriously "fell" from a fourth-floor window. One died of apparent suffocation in prison. The third, a 60-year-old woman, appeared to have been beaten to death. But Falun Gong members are not the only victims of religious repression. The State Department reports that the "unremitting nationwide campaigns against 'cults' and superstition" have also had a predictable "spillover effect on other faiths." Protestant and Catholic groups not registered with the central authorities have suffered severe harassment, including "threats, demolition of unregistered property, extortion of 'fines,' interrogation, detention, and at times beatings and torture." The Vatican recently reported the arrest of an auxiliary bishop as part of a general crackdown on Catholics in central China.

Last week, too, the Beijing government stepped up its pressure on Taiwan, once again hinting of armed conflict and announcing that it will not begin cross-strait negotiations until Taiwan preemptively surrenders and accepts Beijing's definition of "One China." Beijing has also said it will use its pending membership in the World Trade Organization to block Taiwan's long-overdue entry into the WTO. China insists that Taiwan can enter only as a part of China. Under pressure from Congress, President Clinton has announced his opposition to Beijing's stance. But there is no guarantee that Clinton, or Al Gore, or for that matter George W. Bush will hold out against Chinese pressure when the time comes to take care of Taiwan's membership later this year or next.

None of these "untoward events" will have any effect on the thinking of Senator Baucus and his like-minded colleagues, of course. Even if China invaded Taiwan tomorrow, they would no doubt still argue the benefits of trading with Beijing. Corporate America wants to make money in China, and senators in both parties want money from corporate America. End of story. Senate majority leader Trent Lott says he intends to get the bill through no matter what. "It's not a question of if. It's a question of when." Those who raise concerns about giving China a free pass have been squashed. Jesse Helms and Paul Wellstone, for instance, offered an amendment to the trade bill requiring the president to certify whether or not there is religious freedom in China. This was very inconvenient, coming as it did at the same time as the State Department's damning report, so the amendment was defeated, 69-28. The fix is in. The Senate is on autopilot. All deliberation on this matter has ceased.