Tuesday, February 1, 2000


by Philip J. Cunningham 

President Clinton's victory in getting US Congress in
program on the WTO question was capped by a triumphant
New York Times op-ed piece about why China should be
in WTO. There are many good reasons why China should
be in the WTO, especially if that organization truly
aspires to be a global one, but Clinton's argument to
"save" China and make it safe for American investment
fails the test. Worse yet, Clinton employs his
trademark babyboomer spin to reassure Americans that
they are in for a feel-good commitment-free

Savoring the victory of the moment yet anxious to
secure his legacy, the outgoing US President muses
that "China's imminent entry into the World Trade
Organization...can be the most important development
in our relationship with that country since we
normalized ties in 1979." 

He then falls into a condescending line of reasoning
suggesting that getting China into WTO is an American 
victory. "By agreeing with us on its terms of entry into 
the W.T.O., China has chosen to work
within the international system.  By enacting
permanent normal trade relations, we have validated
that choice, bolstering leaders who favor cooperation,
taking an emotional issue away from hard-liners." 

For some reason, the words "China" and "change" are
frequently paired.  The idea of changing China, in
both senses of the word, animates the Clinton
argument. It's the old missionary impulse in new
packaging, saving China,changing China. "It has asked
us for help in building the expertise to make these
changes..."   --bringing to China the light of the
American way.

"In return, we have agreed only to maintain the access
China already enjoys to our market."  What better
underscores the notion that this is a victory for
America in an American world, than to suggest that
China needs to do all the adapting?

Clinton then sets up a false dichotomy by dividing
China into two camps; not so subtly suggesting that
Chinese who follow US policy are more reasonable and
less tyrannical than their "hard-line" colleagues.

"Hard-liners in China opposed W.T.O. membership
because China's closed economic system reinforces
their political control," says the president.  "More
reform-minded leaders understand that in a
global economy, the system must become more open and

Yet there are surely tyrannical types in power who
will benefit from WTO, and democratic types who
will suffer, enabling the elite to consolidate control
of the country while the poor get poorer.

Clinton overstates his case when he claims that WTO is
China's only hope for survival, its only chance 
"to meet its mounting challenges and avoid internal 
upheaval and disintegration."  This kind of talk is, 
to borrow an expression from British Foreign
Minister Robin Cook "pure poppycock." 

A cogent argument can be made that just the opposite
is true; that joining WTO will wreck China with
attendant economic dislocation,  unemployment
in the millions, deepening impoverishment of the
countryside, loss of protective tarriffs and deep 
vulnerablity to the capricious tides of international 
capital flow.Clinton inadvertently admits this, 
"...tens of millions of Chinese citizens will no longer 
depend on the government for everything from their 
paycheck to their housing to their health care,"
touting the withering of the state without giving a 
clue as to how housing, paychecks and health care
will then be provided for.

President Clinton clearly wants us to believe
over-the-top rhetoric about how China in WTO is a
win-win situation that will change the world, while in
a rare moment of candor he admits  "the most immediate
benefits will be economic."
Underneath the purple prose is a domestic political
argument that has as much to do with what's good for
China as British arguments in favor of the Opium War a
century and a half ago.   The US Chamber of Commerce
wants China to play by the Queensbury rules, that much
is obvious. But even if one chooses to believe that
the blind pursuit of profit under WTO rules has a
humane side, --that is, there may be some trickle down
Americanization along the way--, China's accession
to WTO needs to be evaluated not for what it does for
the US, but for China. 

The president's lawyerly choice of words is
instructive. Every time he's about to say something
big, he inserts a little escape clause, such as "Of
course, that is only an opportunity, not a guarantee."
He uses the verb "can" with clinical precision, as in
"can be the most important.." while shunning stronger
words such as"will", or even "might," as if he wants to 
hint at the possibility of something happening but take 
no responsibility for it.

More curiously, he uses the word "regime" twice, not
referring to the friendly reformers in Beijing of
course, but to international institutions and human rights. 
Is this a Freudian slip from a democrat accused of being 
soft on dictatorial regimes?

Clinton draws a line in the sand between himself and a
cast of  imaginary "hardliners", (presumably anyone
who is against WTO), blaming those who  "seek to stoke
anti-American nationalism." Yet it is hard to think of
a single Chinese politician, hard-line or otherwise,
who has done as much harm to US-China relations  
as the precision hit on the China Embassy in Belgrade 
by American jets serving in Clinton's "humanitarian" war.

"America must continue to support from the outside
the struggle for human rights on the inside..."  is a
classic Clintonesque formulation that lets him have
his cake and eat it too.  It's like saying it's okay
to pressure China as long as it doesn't interfere in
China's internal affairs.

"We do not want to see a strong China that seeks
confrontation. Nor do we want to see a weak China,
beset by internal conflicts and social dislocation,
becoming a vast zone of instability in Asia," he adds,
revealing his shrewd Machiavellian side.   As any
policy wonk can tell you, a China that is neither too
strong nor too weak maximizes US interests, just as a
divided, but stable Korea favors the US balance of

"At stake is how China evolves over a decade or more.
Will it resist globalization, or harness it to meet
human needs? Will it reject popular demands for more
freedom and accountability, or achieve the stability
that comes only from letting people shape their own
lives? Will it disregard global rules, or work within
them?  In subliminal terms, Clinton portrays China as
a fallen country, a country in trouble.  Being the man
he is, he would like to save her,or at least help get back 
on her feet again.

In an oblique warning to Japan and Korea, Clinton
concludes without supporting arguments, other than
conjuring up the image of a great wheel, that positive
developments in Asia requires a continued US military
presence. "If tensions between North and South Korea
decrease and if China continues to open up, we may be
tempted to draw back. We must not do so. For we are
not in Asia simply to respond to danger,
but to be a balance wheel."

Clinton's position paper on WTO for China is an
compelling linguistic document from a master
wordsmith, but it is based on faulty logic and fudged
promises that  raise more questions than answers.