U.S. should grant permanent trade status to China.
In late May the U.S. House of Representatives must decide whether to grant to China the permanent normal trading relations extended to virtually every nation on the Earth. The questions are tough, the vote will be close and the consequences are enormous.
The United States should grant this status to China. Isolation can only deepen hostility and delay the reforms China's critics demand.
Many people in human rights groups, and especially those motivated by religious considerations, oppose normal trade relations. The human rights record of China is deplorable; it continues to arrest religious dissidents and oppress the underground Catholic church; its virtual requirement of abortion of a couple's second or third child is horrendous. China is still governed by communist principles, although it is in some ways moving to market economics.
Recently, however, a group of clergy led by the Quakers (Society of Friends) joined in a statement that the better overall policy is to establish normal trade relations with China and use the increased presence of the West it affords as a way to advocate higher standards on human rights, environmental measures and labor conditions. Holy Cross Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame University, has joined this group.
Many members of the house are divided because granting trade status to China will be seen as a "no" vote for the labor unions, as was the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some of labor's arguments are powerful and have been supported by both liberals and conservatives in the Congress. It's hard to argue with the idea of ensuring decent wages, protecting political freedom or defending the environment.
The fact is, however, that if Congress extends permanent trade status to China, when it enters the World Trade Organization it will be bound by the full range of commitments in the U.S.-China Bilateral Trade Agreement. These commitments will move China in the direction of reform, accountability and even to granting religious freedom.
It must be remembered that for a thousand years China has never held an election, and its government structure is authoritarian to the core. Reform will not come overnight, but when it comes, it will be because China was tugged in that direction by the lure of economic development and peaceful relations.
America's economic sanctions against Cuba are obsolete, and our economic boycott of Iraq is bringing horrendous consequences to the children of that country. What possible benefit will come from isolating China economically? It is simply unrealistic to refuse to deal on normal terms with a nation that contains about one-fifth of the human race.
A letter to members of Congress with the strong support of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (the Quakers) is worth quoting: "It is far more likely that China will cooperate and begin to observe international norms of behavior if it is recognized by the U.S. as an equal partner within the community of nations than if it is isolated or excluded."
Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.