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The Most Favored China Policy



Throughout its history, U.S. foreign policy has ricocheted between idealism and pragmatism. The idealists urge the spread of democratic values throughout the world. The pragmatists focus on national interest, particularly security.

There are good historical reasons for this duality between idealism and pragmatism. The American Revolution against a despotic English king and the immigration of millions seeking sanctuary from authoritarianism brought about America's Jeffersonian democracy. But American policy has also been shaped by more pragmatic concerns--the conquest gf the Western frontier, the battle against Soviet expansionism, the struggle for open markets, and the need to secure supplies of raw materials.

In the modern era, Woodrow Wilson's call to make the world "safe for democracy" in World War I represented the epitome of the idealist sensibility. Richard Nixon's opening of relations with China was in the best tradition of realpolitik.

Today, China is once again center stage, an international arena in which idealism and pragmatism battle it out to define U.S. foreign policy. There is no stronger image tugging at the American heart than the sight of a lone individual standing fast in front of a line of tanks, as Cable News Network broadcast from Tiananmen Square nearly five years ago.

But the Clinton Administration's effort to promote human rights in China by threatening to revoke its most-favored-nation trading status has been an unmitigated disaster. Not only has it failed to intimidate Beijing, it has threatened to undermine the once-powerful force working for democracy in China today: economic growth. The expansion of the market economy and double-digit growth rates are doing more to create a freer society inside China than any external pressure the U.S. could apply (page 94).

A detailed look at Chinese life shows that prosperity is generating a greater measure of economic, social, and political freedom for millions of Chinese. It also highlights how the U.S. can support that freedom with a supply-side kind of human-rights policy that actively helps the internal forces pushing for rights.

The entire fabric of Chinese state and party control is starting to unravel. New private-sector jobs and a massive wave of mobility are breaking down the dang an system of personal dossiers kept by party officials that virtually enslaved many Chinese in the past. Workers' family backgrounds, class, and political leanings were listed and used to control income, promotions, and careers. Going, too, because of job mobility, is the control of local neighborhood "watch" groups that kept tabs on marriages, children, even abortions.

As the economy becomes increasingly decentralized, it undermines the power of the Propaganda Ministry to control what people see and hear, while the explosion of information via satellite dishes, computers, faxes, and phones is tying millions of Chinese into the global culture.

Chinese workers themselves are increasingly striking for better pay and working conditions. About 800 illegal trade unions exist in Guangdong Province alone. Even underground churches are springing up all over China, as the void left from the end of communist ideology is filled by religion.

Given this reality, what should be U.S. foreign policy toward China? The most important step by the Clinton Administration would be to fully delink MFN and human rights. Promoting trade and U.S. investment in China generates the very kind of income and mobility essential to human rights.

Yet there is more to do. The U.S. should encourage the spread of commercial law through a special program that sends American lawyers to China and trains Chinese lawyers on U.S. campuses. In a society where rule of law has long been subordinated to guanxi, or personal connections, the Chinese are increasingly turning to their legal system to adjudicate business and personal disputes.

There are lawsuits everywhere, some of them even against the national police. While the suits focus on economic rights, there is a spillover into individual rights under the law. The Ford Foundation is sponsoring public-interest legal centers. Many more are needed.

Pumping more information into the society is also critical. Increasing Voice of America and Radio Free Asia broadcasts to provide outside perspectives on internal events is important, whether the programs get jammed or not. So, too, is encouraging private investment in local media companies and transforming them into full-fledged, advertiser-supported newspapers, magazines, and TV stations.

The U.S. labor movement can help by providing guidance to the growing number of underground unions in China. After World War II, American labor unions played a key role in establishing anticommunist, pro-democratic unions in Western Europe and Japan. They did it again in Poland in the 1980s. China is their next overseas challenge.

American companies can help most through their job-generating investments. Beyond that, however, they can help promote freedom by agreeing to a voluntary code of conduct that prohibits them from using or selling products made by Gulag labor and importing goods made in prisons. A number of U.S. companies such as Reebok International Ltd. already use these kinds of guidelines.

Delinking not only promotes human rights in China, it advances other pragmatic U.S. interests. Washington could use Beijing's active help on North Korea and in curbing nuclear proliferation. The growing trade deficit with China must be soon addressed. And there are copyright and counterfeiting problems that must be solved.

There are ways the U.S. can pressure China without using MFN. Most important, Washington has not been deft in playing its "Taiwan card," and it is time it learned.

The memory of Tiananmen Square makes an unemotional U.S. policy toward China difficult. But the facts about what is going on at the grassroots levels offer strong evidence that economic growth promotes freedom. That is why the U.S. can renew MFN with a clear conscience.

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