Bai Guang is about as close as you get in China to Ross Perot.
In a new book, "World Trade Tidal Wave," he warns that if China succeeds in its 13-year bid to join the World Trade Organization, fledgling manufacturers in this sheltered economy will take a beating from foreign competitors.
To win admission to the global trade body, his book explains, China will be forced to slash tariffs and clear a thicket of regulatory measures that have protected domestic enterprises here for decades. Tens of thousands of Chinese businesses--including ventures in key sectors such as autos, steel and electronics--could be wiped out. Legions of Chinese workers could be laid off.
"The tidal wave hitting China's iron and steel industry will be enormous," Bai declares in a typical passage. "Many small and medium enterprises, and even some of the big producers, could go bankrupt. All of society could be affected."
But don't expect to find Bai, a 48-year old economist, jousting with government leaders on national television, brandishing charts and hurling insults as then-candidate Perot did during the 1992 presidential race, as he warned of dire economic consequences to befall the United States if it entered a free-trade pact with Mexico. This is China, after all, and Communist Party leaders have pronounced China's inclusion in the 134-nation body that regulates world trade as a top foreign policy goal and a matter of national prestige.
And so, on the eve of a long-awaited U.S.-China summit that could clear the most significant remaining obstacle to China's entry into the Geneva-based entity, popular discussion of the WTO is subdued.
But the muted public debate belies the enormous stakes for China's citizens--and the ferocity of opposition within the Communist leadership.
Last April, to win U.S. support for China's inclusion in the trade body, China's reform-minded prime minister, Zhu Rongji, put forward a package of concessions so sweeping that it stunned business leaders in America. It also enraged Communist stalwarts in China, who attacked Zhu as a "traitor" guilty of "betraying China" by proposing to let foreigners gain control of vital national industries such as telecommunications and oil.
Zhu offered a proposal that would have thrown open Chinese markets to outside competition for a wide array of goods and services. It would have chopped tariffs to an average of 10 percent, down from the current 17 percent, and rescinded a host of restrictions limiting foreign firms' ability to invest, buy and sell goods and services and distribute their products inside China.
Together, those measures would force wrenching economic and social changes in the world's most populous nation, economists said.
But China's leaders are betting that however painful the short-term adjustments, they will be outweighed by the potentially huge long-term benefits of opening the nation's troubled $1 trillion economy to foreign competition. They are hoping that WTO membership will help spur economic growth by providing bigger markets for Chinese exports while forcing Chinese businesses to become more productive.
China could take a giant step toward inclusion in the global trade group today at a meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, between President Clinton and Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
U.S. trade negotiators have spent the past week in Beijing and Auckland haggling with their Chinese counterparts about WTO admission, resuming talks that faltered after Clinton--bowing to pressure from congressional critics and organized labor--rejected Zhu's April proposals. Talks broke off altogether after NATO's May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
But during the past month, each government has shown its eagerness to close a deal. Among U.S. business leaders and trade experts, expectations are running high that Clinton and Jiang will emerge all smiles from today's encounter to announce an agreement that matches, or goes beyond, Zhu's April position.
"My view is that Zhu and the reformers have carried the day," said the Brookings Institution's Nicholas Lardy, an authority on the Chinese economy.
However, some economists who study China believe that, in the near term, Zhu's market-opening proposals could slice 2 percentage points off China's economic growth rate and throw many millions out of work. One study by Unirule Institute of Economics, an independent Beijing think tank, found that liberalized trade would achieve long-run gains in competitiveness and efficiency, but at the cost of as many as 5 million industrial jobs.
That's a daunting prospect for China's wobbly economy. Unlike many of its neighbors, China has yet to bounce back from the Asian financial crisis. Growth has slowed dramatically in the past two years. Fred Hu, an economist at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, estimates that in the long term, gains solely from increased productivity could boost China's annual economic growth rate by half a percentage point.
But those benefits aren't likely to be shared evenly. In China, as in other developing economies, increased openness to the global market is likely to aggravate disparities between rich and poor, between workers with technical skills and those without. "It's no wonder China's senior leaders want to avoid public debate about WTO," said Andy Xie, a China specialist at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in Hong Kong. Implementing the proposals needed to win China a seat at the Geneva-based trade entity "is going to be an incredibly divisive process."
Opposition to Zhu's market reform initiatives has flared most visibly in the telecommunications sector. China is laying phone lines at a rapid pace. For the past five years, it has added the equivalent of one of America's regional phone companies every year. Still, fewer than 10 percent of China's 1.2 billion people have access to a phone and consumers complain about bad service and sky-high rates.
Late last year, Zhu approved a plan that would split China's behemoth phone monopoly, China Telecom, into four separate companies. But that decision infuriated Wu Jichuan, the powerful head of China's Ministry of Information Industries. When Zhu offered in April to allow foreign control of up to 49 percent of Chinese phone networks and up to 51 percent of paging services, Wu offered his resignation. (For now, he remains in office.)
China's state-run banking sector would be sure to suffer in a more competitive environment. Zhu's April offer would permit foreign investment of as much as 100 percent in full-service retail banking operations by 2005, and allow foreign banks to conduct local-currency transactions by 2005.
Still, the recent development of China's electronic industry offers reason to be optimistic about China's potential competitiveness. China lowered import tariffs on personal computers and similar products in the early 1990s. The increased competition from brands such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Toshiba hurt at first. But now the biggest player in China's PC market is Legend Computers, a home-grown brand.
A final accord may elude negotiators again, of course. And if there is a deal, key elements may be left unsettled. Some fear China will go the way of India, Brazil and Korea--which have become WTO members but nonetheless find ways to keep out foreign goods.
Many experts argue the important thing is that Beijing has made great strides toward satisfying the criteria for WTO admission and demonstrated a will to stick with needed but painful reforms.
"China has no choice," Hu said. "With or without WTO, it will have to restructure. Foreign competition can only help if it accelerates that process."
Staff writer Michael Laris in Beijing contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Popular debate on China's entry into the World Trade Organization has been subdued.