In 1995 then-President Bill Clinton extended Most Favored Nation status to China.
His justification for the move, coming as it did after ripping George H.W. Bush for being soft on China during the 1992 campaign, was believing we could make China a better neighbor by trading with them.
“This decision offers us the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human rights and for the advancement of our other interests with China,” he said at the time.
“Trade is a force for change in China, exposing China to our ideas and our ideals, and integrating China into the global economy,” Clinton said when arguing in 1998 to extend China’s favored status.
In 2000 the United States government moved China to Permanent Normal Trade Status, and again Clinton was a cheerleader for the move. “We can work to pull China in the right direction, or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction,” he said.
Clinton was hardly alone in his views on China. They had broad, bipartisan support.
I, too, subscribed to them arguing in years past that among the best ways to pacify and reform belligerent, abusive regimes was to use capitalism as a lever to pry open their closed societies. It’s hard to stoke hostilities against your trade partners; it’s hard to stoke hatred against western civilization while watching our movies.
It’s a nice idea, particularly for those of us who believe in the efficacy of capitalism and free markets.
Has it worked with China? Is that nation a greater or lesser national security threat today than it was in 1995?
China has used international trade as an entré to wholesale theft of intellectual property which they, in turn, use to not only harm us economically but enhance their ability to spy and even make war on us.
We live in an era where consumer goods connected to China – products like cell phones or tablets which may be in your home right now – cannot be trusted.
“The Chinese intelligence services strategically use every tool at their disposal — including state-owned businesses, students, researchers, and ostensibly private companies — to systematically steal information and intellectual property,” FBI director Christopher Wray said recently.
Nor has trade tamped down China’s propensity to abuse its own citizens. The Communist regime has perhaps as many as two million people living in concentration camps. The country has “dramatically stepped up repression and systematic abuses against the 13 million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region,” Human Rights Watch reports.
In 2018 Xi Jingping, who has been General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since 2012 and President of the country since 2013, indicated his desire to hold power indefinitely by abolishing term limits for the presidency.
China is second only to the United States in terms of economic and military strength, yet we often ignore the country’s abuses and aggressions for the sake of economic expediency.
Most political pundits seem to be looking at the situation with China through the myopic lens of in-the-moment politics. President Donald Trump’s trade war with the country is causing economic harm for our country. Particularly in parts of the country, like North Dakota, that Trump counts as his base of support.
The President’s political enemies are quick to make hay of that. They hope those voters, feeling abused because they can’t sell their soybeans or other products into the massive Chinese market, will flee from supporting Trump. During last year’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race between Trump-backing Republican Kevin Cramer and incumbent Democrat Heidi Heitkamp much was made, by Heitkamp’s supporters, of the plight of soybean farmers.
Cramer ultimately won, but the issue hasn’t gone away as the trade war escalates.
It’s hard to blame anyone for voting in accordance with their economic interests, but what if this fight is bigger than soybeans?
What if we made a mistake, during the Clinton era, in believing trade with China would make for a better China?
What if instead we gave an abusive regime an economic fuel cell which has allowed them to grow into an existential threat to the peace and well being of the global community?
These are not easy questions to ask or answer. Changing our trade stance with China is painful now, and would only be more so if we continue down this path.
What if that’s what’s needed?