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Aim the Policy at Next Generation : Would withdrawing MFN for economically troubled China be effective statecraft?

Sometime soon President Bush will have to decide whether he wants to extend most-favored- nation trade status to China for another year. As historic irony would have it, the June 3 deadline for Bush to send his MFN recommendation to Congress falls on the anniversary eve of last year’s Beijing massacre, when army troops slaughtered hundreds of dissidents demanding political reform. The White House is grimly conscious of the coincidence. So are many in Congress who remain angry and unforgiving over the crimes China’s leaders have committed against their own people.

Most-favored-nation status is a reciprocal arrangement that grants advantageous tariff rates to a trading partner’s imports. Low tariffs can be worth a great deal in terms of total volume and market access. They’re one big reason why China, which first won MFN status in 1979, has seen its U.S. sales swell and its trade surplus grow to more than $6 billion in 1989.

But MFN can be a tool of politics no less than of economics, a weapon for punishment as well as a device for reward. Since 1974, U.S. law has said that any “non-market” country that restricts the emigration rights of its citizens is ineligible for MFN, unless the President certifies that granting MFN would promote free emigration. That law, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, was aimed at securing free emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union, but Congress has since increasingly come to look on it as a tactic for punishing general human- rights violations. As it happens, emigration from China to the United States doesn’t seem to have fallen in the last year. But human rights in China have obviously suffered a great and painful regression, beginning with last June’s mass killings and extending to a crackdown on all suspected dissenters and a ruthless effort to enforce political conformity.

Would an effort to protest these abuses by withdrawing MFN be an effective tool of statecraft? Or would such an insistence on giving concrete form to understandable moral revulsion instead cause China’s ancient rulers to further harden their hearts against any relaxation of social and political repressions?

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Almost certainly any attempt to use economic coercion to promote more political tolerance in China would fail, in the process bringing still more pain to an already beset Chinese people. For if MFN is withdrawn and trade inevitably plummets, the economic reforms that remain China’s great long-term hope for progressing toward a fairer and more humane society would surely falter; living standards would decline, and China’s international isolation--never a good thing for the welfare of a country’s people--would deepen.

That is not what those who continue to be morally repelled by the Chinese regime’s repressive behavior want to see. Better at this point, then, to extend MFN for another year, making emphatically clear at the same time that the action is not taken as a favor to the regime but as an effort to improve the lot of the Chinese people. Before long, the tired generation of old revolutionaries who continue to cling to power in Beijing must pass from the scene. But China endures, and it is with an eye on the needs of the Chinese people and on the next generation of leaders that U.S. policy should be devised and carried out.


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