The House voted yesterday to maintain normal trade relations with China for another year, rejecting emotional pleas from members of both parties to punish Beijing economically for its alleged spying and human rights violations.
The 260-170 vote effectively ended this year's debate over whether to keep the U.S. market open to Chinese goods on the same low-tariff basis as other trading partners. Under a 25-year-old law, the trade status of communist countries must be reviewed annually, and President Clinton's recommendation last month to extend normal trade relations with Beijing -- it used to be called "most-favored-nation status" -- can be overturned only by the disapproval of both houses of Congress.
The outcome was widely expected, but it set the stage for a much more intense congressional battle that is expected later this year over China's bid to join the World Trade Organization, the Geneva-based body that regulates global commerce.
Negotiations between China and Western industrial powers on Beijing's WTO membership, which stalled after NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, have shown signs of reviving lately and may get a boost at a meeting next month between Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin in New Zealand. But even if a deal is struck in the fall, as the White House hopes, it wouldn't become fully effective unless Congress granted Beijing permanent status as a normal trading partner and voted to end the annual reviews.
Yesterday's vote left both sides in the China debate claiming that their position will prevail if and when the time comes for a showdown on granting Beijing permanent access to the U.S. market under a WTO accord.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a vociferous critic of China's human rights policies, told reporters the vote "puts a stake in the heart" of the effort to bring Beijing into the WTO with permanent trading privileges. His argument was bolstered by Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), the Democratic whip, who said: "There are 20 to 25 members who told us that they would vote for this [the annual extension of China's trading rights] but against WTO. That's just in our caucus. And if you add people from the Republican side to the 170 we got today, you've got a very close vote."
But proponents of close economic ties with China strongly disputed that analysis.
"I think today's vote speaks favorably for the prospects" of China's WTO entry, said Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), who voiced pleasant surprise that his fellow Republicans largely maintained support for the annual trade extension despite the furor over alleged Chinese espionage at U.S. nuclear labs and the recent tensions over Taiwan. "The number of votes supporting the president's extension was only four less than last year; if anything, you would have expected a bigger drop-off, especially on the Republican side."
Other administration allies noted that bringing China into the WTO would involve major concessions on Beijing's part to lower trade barriers and grant vastly improved access to U.S. firms seeking to tap the Chinese market. That will make voting in favor commensurately more attractive, they contended.
"I think similar arguments will be used as were used today, with the added plus that WTO accession will force the Chinese to live with a rules-based trading system," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.). "If by voting in favor of the [annual extension], one subscribes to the basic thesis that economic reform is the single most powerful force for positive change in China in its 5,000-year history, then I think people will have even more reason to support this when they face the WTO vote."
A long debate preceded yesterday's vote, with members on both sides trotting out many of the same arguments they have marshaled for years over whether it is better to "engage" China.
But House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) was particularly impassioned in imploring his colleagues to vote against extending China's trade privileges, citing Beijing's recent crackdown on Falun Gong, a religious sect.
"They're arresting people today who they don't want to express their beliefs," Gephardt thundered, as the House fell silent. "You tell me if they're making progress! When will America finally stand up and say that the human rights Americans enjoy should be enjoyed by people all over the world?"