The China Trade Debate

The debate over whether the United States should give permanent normal trade relations to China pits human rights concerns against economic ones. While others focus on labor, environmental or military issues, the U.S. bishops oppose special trade privileges for China because of China’s human rights abuses, especially in the area of religious freedom, said Tom Quigley, policy adviser in the U.S. Catholic Conference international justice and peace office.

According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, violations by Chinese officials increased markedly over the past year. In its first report, issued on May 1, the commission cited a nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement; actions against Catholic and Protestant "underground" churches, including the arrest of bishops, priests and pastors; and expanded repression of Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs.

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It is such a record that has concerned the U.S.C.C., the public policy arm of the bishops, for the past decade, said Quigley. "Each year when the renewal of what was then called most favored nation’ trading status came up," he said, "we have urged that a strong vote against it be registered...mainly as an effort to send a clear signal both to the Chinese government and the administration to take human rights and religious freedom more seriously. And each year, of course, it has passed."

The bishops expressed their latest opposition in a letter on April 12 to House members, who were expected to vote on the matter the week of May 22. "The key vote is going to be in the House," Quigley said. "The Senate is a wash, really. They’ll pass it without any question." He said the conference was sending copies of the letter to each bishop and intended to send an action alert to diocesan social action directors, inviting them to contact their members of Congress. Quigley said the annual review has given the U.S.C.C. an opportunity to raise the human rights issue. "We would regret losing that opportunity," he said.

On the other side of the debate are economic issues. James Feinerman, director of the Asian Law and Policy Studies Program at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, said the question of U.S.-China trade relations is occurring parallel to Chinese efforts to join the 135-member World Trade Organization. "China may become a member of the W.T.O. regardless" of whether we give them permanent normal trade relations, he told CNS. "It seems very unlikely that China won’t become a member."

If China receives W.T.O. membership and permanent status from the United States, he said, "then we get access to their markets on the same sort of favored status as everybody else does." He described this as "a one-way street in favor of the United States," because Chinese markets have been relatively closed and U.S. markets already have been well penetrated by Chinese producers. However, if permanent status is denied, he said, other W.T.O. members would immediately gain access to Chinese markets, while the Chinese would be able to "keep us out of large sectors of their economy."

Feinerman said the basic principle among W.T.O. nations is to give all members the same degree of favorable treatment that is given to any member. Even though the United States repeatedly has granted China normal trade relations, he said, the Chinese "insistand I think this is generally understood by everyone to be the casethat they would be disadvantaged compared to other W.T.O. members if they didn’t have permanent" normal trade relations.

Sister Mary Elizabeth Clark, a Sister of St. Joseph who is a Network lobbyist, raised other concerns of the Washington-based national Catholic social justice lobby. Network has not taken a position on permanent normal trading relations for China, she said, but has been analyzing how it would "affect the poorest people in China." The W.T.O. needs "serious deconstruction," said Sister Clark. "This gives us an opportunity to put the spotlight, not on China, but on the World Trade Organization and regulations about trade that favor the major corporations over people, especially people who are poor," she said.

In Feinerman’s view, 20 years of annual China reviews have had little effect on the human rights situation there. "They do what they do, including victimizing individual political prisoners in certain disfavored groups, totally independent of trade considerations," he said. If permanent normal trade relations are granted, he said, the impact would be "positive, but in the very long term.... These things work their way through society slowly. They don’t immediately translate into political prisoners freed or certain immediate kinds of gains."

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