Senate Votes on Historic China Trade Bill

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 19, 2000 -- The Senate today approved permanent normal trade status for China, marking a turning point in a half-century of stormy relations between the world’s strongest power and the most-populous nation.

The 83-15 vote effectively ends the annual debate over whether trade should be used as a tool to sanction China’s communist government for its weapons and human rights policies. It also sets the stage for Chinese market-opening measures that could mean billions of dollars in new business for American manufacturers and farmers.

U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said the vote was “as important as any on China since 1972, with the opening of China.” She said it marked a “historic milepost” in the rocky relations that have existed since Mao Tse-tung brought the communists to power in 1949.

The bill now goes to President Clinton for his signature.

‘A Defining Moment’

Sen. William Roth, R-Del., chairman of the Finance Committee, called the vote “a defining moment in the history of this chamber and in the history of our country.”

Not only will it open new business opportunities, he said, it will help “in meeting what is likely to be our single greatest foreign policy challenge in the coming decades, managing our relations with a rising China.”

The legislation, the most important trade bill since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, enjoyed the potent backing of Clinton, the congressional Republican leadership and the nation’s major business and agriculture groups. Both presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, support permanent trade.

“It represents the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s, when President Nixon first went there and later in the decade when President Carter normalized relations,” Clinton said in a speech earlier this year.

It has been opposed by labor, human rights and conservative groups who say it is wrong to give up the annual review of China trade that since the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement has given lawmakers a way to highlight China’s weapons proliferation and persecution of its citizens.

Most Important Trade Bill Since NAFTA

The legislation is a consequence of a trade agreement between the United States and China last fall that opened the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. With WTO membership, China will make significant cuts in its tariffs while opening its markets to the products and investment of America and other countries. China must also abide by international rules in such areas as protecting intellectual property.

In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Sun Yuxi, told reporters, “The early resolution of this issue not only serves the interests of China; it is also in the interests of the United States itself.”

The PNTR legislation would go into effect when China joins the WTO, probably late this year or early next year. Currently, under a 1974 law, trade relations with communist states must be reviewed annually.

The United States, which already has open markets, made no new concessions as part of the agreement, but must grant permanent trade status before it can share in China’s market-opening measures.

Alex Jackson of the American Farm Bureau Federation said that with China’s agriculture tariffs slated to be cut in half, American exports of farm products could increase by $2 billion a year.

Not All in Congress Pleased

There will be “unprecedented opportunities,” said John Schachter of the Business Roundtable, with “the opening of the world’s largest emerging marketplace to goods and services that largely have been kept out until now.”

In addition to lower tariffs, under WTO rules China must also grant Americans and others the right to set up distribution points within the country, must open its financial and service sectors to foreign competitors and must allow outside participation in its Internet and telecommunications development.

Despite those benefits, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., said Monday that it was a “dangerous mistake” for Congress to give away its voice on trade relations when China’s security threats and human rights abuses are getting worse. “We are putting profits over people,” he said. “It’s plain wrong and it’s un-American.”

The House passed the PNTR bill last May by 237-197. The only real suspense during two weeks of Senate debate was whether opponents could be prevented from attaching crippling amendments on subjects ranging from proliferation to human rights abuses. The concern was that the House wouldn’t have time to act on any Senate changes before Congress adjourns next month.