The House on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of normal trade relations with China, despite recent concerns about the nation's alleged theft of U.S. nuclear secrets and continuing disapproval of Beijing's human rights policies.
The 260-170 rejection of an effort to sever normal trade relations with China reaffirmed the political support in Congress for engagement with the world's most populous nation. The vote crossed party lines, with 98 Democrats and 71 Republicans voting to revoke normal trade status. The one independent in the House also voted to revoke it.
Business groups, which lobbied energetically for the strongest possible support of normal trade relations with China, hope that the vote will spur the resumption of negotiations between Washington and Beijing on China's entry into the World Trade Organization, leading to the permanent normalization of trade between the two nations.
"A strong vote is a mandate to move forward in the trade negotiations," said Myron Brilliant, a lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which estimates that 200,000 U.S. jobs and $18 billion in exports depend on trade with China.
President Clinton applauded the action. "Expanding trade can help bring greater social change to China by spreading the tools, contacts and ideas that promote freedom," the president said.
Supporters of normal trade ties argue that China's buying power will grow tremendously in the coming years and that the competitiveness of American businesses--from high-tech firms to agricultural concerns--depends on their access to that burgeoning market.
They also argue that engagement on trade and in other areas is the best way to influence China to allow more personal freedoms to its people and to deter Beijing from participating in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
"Over the next 20 or 30 years, China will become one of the most dangerous players in the world if we begin to try to isolate them," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento).
The annual extension of China's normal trade status, previously known as most-favored-nation status, has become a rite of summer in Congress in recent years.
Although the outcome was predictable, legislators again used the debate to denounce Beijing for everything from espionage against the U.S. to repressing China's people for their religious beliefs.
"Why are we rewarding China for its spying?" said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.).
In May, a congressional committee released a report accusing China of covertly using a vast network of spies to steal U.S. nuclear secrets and military technology.
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), the chief author of the report, called the annual vote on trade Congress' way of "whitewashing human rights abuses."
In the early 1990s, China typically released some political prisoners on the eve of the vote, but this year the vote coincides with a crackdown on Falun Gong, a meditation and exercise sect that has been banned by the Chinese government.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) compared engaging in trade with China to trading with Nazi Germany. "They are the evil empire," he said.
Wolf noted China's practice of forced abortions to control population and posed the question of why his colleagues who oppose abortion do not routinely oppose normal trade status.
Opponents of trade liberalization said that on the issue of trade too, the U.S. gets a raw deal with China. The trade deficit with Beijing is projected at $70 billion this year.
By contrast, supporters of the measure argued that NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the war against Yugoslavia, heightened tensions between Taiwan and China, concern about espionage and the recent repression of Chinese civilians for practicing their beliefs are all reasons to maintain positive ties with Beijing.
"The relationship between China and the United States is very fragile now--perhaps more fragile than ever," said Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the measure. "We should certainly not take steps that would cause relations to deteriorate even further."