The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

U.S. Trade Relations with China Haven’t Changed Beijing’s Bad Human-Rights Record

Chinese and U.S. flags placed for a meeting between Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and China’s Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing, China, in 2017. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Tough questions about what two decades of ever-increasing trade with China has gotten us, and a look back at the not-so-realized promises of those who contended Permanent Normal Trade Relations would improve China’s behavior; a look at how politics gives some people a form of easily justified hate; and an observation about the danger of defining the value of human life by whether it is wanted.

Increased U.S. Trade with China Was Supposed to Change Beijing’s Behavior. It Didn’t.

What if authoritarian capitalism (or quasi-capitalism, or however you want to characterize the Chinese model) is every bit the threat to a free-market democratic republic like ours that Soviet Communism was?

In the 1992 presidential debate, Bill Clinton hit President George H. W. Bush for being soft on Chinese leaders after Tiananmen Square and pledged to use trade as a form of leverage to pressure China’s rulers on human rights:

I think it is a mistake for us to do what this administration did when all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Bush sent two people in secret to toast the Chinese leaders and basically tell them not to worry about it . . . I would be firm. I would say if you want to continue Most-Favored Nations status for your government-owned industries as well as your private ones, observe human rights in the future. Open your society. Recognize the legitimacy of those kids that were carrying the Statue of Liberty. If we can stand up for our economics, we ought to be able to preserve the democratic interests of the people in China, and over the long run they will be more reliable partners.

But by 1995, Bill Clinton had completely reversed himself, extending Most Favored Nation status to China, despite little to no sign of progress in how the Chinese government treated its people. Clinton argued, and apparently had convinced himself, that more trade with China would make the Chinese government change its ways. “This decision offers us the best opportunity to lay the basis for long-term sustainable progress on human rights and for the advancement of our other interests with China.”

Back in 1998, when he was arguing in favor of extending Most Favored Nation trade status for China, Bill Clinton argued: “Trade is a force for change in China, exposing China to our ideas and our ideals, and integrating China into the global economy.” Most senior GOP lawmakers concurred: “Seeking to keep China open to the West has proven to be the most effective way to advance our democratic values in this turbulent region of the world — a policy we are committed to maintaining.”

By 2000, the United States contemplated and enacted “Permanent Normal Trade Status,” which meant the U.S. government would not need to periodically renew China’s “most favored nation” status. At the time, Clinton argued “I believe the choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one . . . We can work to pull China in the right direction, or we can turn our backs and almost certainly push it in the wrong direction.”

A lot of seemingly smart people are quite skilled at convincing themselves that giving oppressive regimes more of what they want will somehow make them behave better. In 2001, when the International Olympic Committee contemplating selecting Beijing as a host city for the summer Olympic Games, they concluded that picking Beijing would force the country to improve the country’s human-rights record, because surely Beijing’s rulers would change their ways with the international spotlight on them. But China did not change as the Olympics approached or after; by some measures, their control of the media and press only grew tighter.

As the U.S. and China traded more decade by decade, the Chinese threat to U.S. national security has grown instead of shrunk. They continue to expand their military and make it way more technologically advanced, often using stolen intellectual property. The Pentagon has concluded Beijing “is going forward with a plan to dominate the world in AI [artificial intelligence] in the 2025 to 2030 time frame.” They want to control the world’s 5G network and sell technology that they can use to collect data and feed it to their intelligence apparatus. Basically, if your phone or computer or tablet is made in China, there’s a good chance there’s some sort of backdoor that allows the Chinese government to poke around.

FBI director Christopher Wray declared recently that China is “a major counterintelligence threat to the U.S. and other countries. The Chinese intelligence services strategically use every tool at their disposal — including state-owned businesses, students, researchers, and ostensibly private companies — to systematically steal information and intellectual property.”

And China has at least a million — perhaps two million! — religious and ethnic minorities rounded up in concentration camps.

Our old friend Reihan Salam observed that a generation ago, there was at least some pushback against China’s behavior in American political circles, a pushback that is now almost entirely gone.

The Free Tibet T-shirts that were ubiquitous on college campuses in the 1990s, when debates over PNTR were especially fierce, are now nowhere to be seen. That the Uyghur cause has attracted little American interest is par for the course. Calling for a boycott of Israel is, for campus activists of a certain stripe, practically de rigeur. Boycotting China, in contrast, verges on the unthinkable. For one, it would require feats of self-denial that no red-blooded American consumer could hope to endure.

Trade integrated China into the global economy, but if it exposed China to our ideas and our ideals, the Chinese government rejected them. All of this trade and engagement and interaction . . . gave China more leverage over us, instead of giving us more leverage over them.

Today, American tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports could increase from 10 percent to 25 percent, a major escalation in a U.S.-Chinese trade war. No doubt, this is going to carry serious costs for American consumers and American producers who have grown used to relatively easy access to the Chinese market.

But in light of everything has done and continues to do . . . are we certain that less trade with China would be a bad thing? Maybe it would be a mixed-bag kind of thing? If access to China’s market was less important to our producers, and enjoying the benefits of China’s cheap imports became less important to our consumers, maybe our government and our people could raise a bigger stink about their illegal, aggressive, dangerous, oppressive, and provocative behavior? Considering where ever-growing trade and ever-closer interaction with China has left us and them . . . maybe it’s time for a “conscious uncoupling,” as Gwyneth Paltrow would put it?

In that essay above, Reihan concludes, “a bipartisan coalition promised Americans that granting China permanent normal trade relations would help ensure our prosperity and that China would soon be transformed from foe to friend, and we were foolish enough to believe them.” At the risk of sounding like Phil McGraw, how’s that working out for us? And if we keep doing what we’re doing . . . won’t we keep getting what we’re getting?

Politics, Filling a Hole Left by Religion . . . that Religion Probably Never Should Have Left

Our Kevin Williamson rips State representative Brian Sims a new one with his trademark insight, acerbity, and wit. One particularly important observation:

Representative Sims is a low kind of man with a low kind of mind, but Representative Sims is, in fact, representative. In our time, politics has become a very strong part of some people’s identities, fundamental to their self-conception. Partly it fills the hole left by the attenuation of religion, but it is also a kind of identity politics for — Representative Sims surely will appreciate the irony — college-educated white people.

One note to add: Everybody wants a purpose in life, to feel a sense that they matter. They want to feel like their willingness to get up in the morning has an important consequence. It’s why people do everything from volunteering at charities to working extra hours to posting rants on YouTube to, alas, shooting up a school.

Politics gives a lot of people that sense of purpose. And it can manifest itself in a lot of ways — from little old ladies who volunteer to stuff envelopes; to wide-eyed idealistic interns; to marching protesters; to professional activists and lobbyists; to gruff, old strategists; to number-crunching pollsters and researchers trying to figure out what the voters really want and what really motivates them; to lawyers, eager to fight for what they believe is right within the walls of a courtroom.

But politics gives you an opponent, which a lot of people choose to see as an enemy. It can offer someone a group of people whom they feel justified in hating. Sims relished snarling at the woman praying, denouncing her as an “old white lady.” He enjoyed mocking and sneering at her Catholic faith. If you told Sims to go to a funeral and mock the widow, he would probably recoil because berating elderly strangers is a pretty big taboo. But if he was told the widow was a big pro-life activist, he might do it, because in his mind, hating pro-lifers and Catholics is a morally justified form of hate — the kind of hate some of us might reserve for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

ADDENDUM: In yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, discussing that CNN guest who insisted, “When a woman gets pregnant, that is not a human being inside of her.”

Greg: “‘The ‘Party of Science,’ and I’m making air quotes as I say that, says that it’s a person if you want it.”

Jim: “I mean, Greg, there are a lot of people in this world I don’t want . . . They’re still human beings.”


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