August 16, 2000 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development

Keeping the Faith of Free Trade for China

WASHINGTON-Once the U.S. Senate returns from summer recess, it will reportedly waste no time in passing "permanent normal trade relations" with China, granting China the same low-tariff treatment that most U.S. trading partners enjoy.

For me, that means one thing-more arguments with my family. We normally get along just fine. But as a member of the "religious right," I'm expected to oppose PNTR for China because, my exasperated relatives explain, it will do nothing to address human rights violations there.

Do I really want to align myself with those who put profits over people? Should the Chinese government be rewarded for oppressing its citizens? I understand, because I used to feel the same way.

It's a position that at first glance makes sense. The Chinese want access to our markets. We want the persecution to stop. So we withhold trade rights until their human-rights record improves.

But is that the best course? I began to wonder after attending a lecture given by John Hulsman, a foreign policy analyst in Washington. He thinks granting China perma nent normal trade relations will help the Chinese people gain greater freedom, because closed societies that interact with open ones sooner or later become more open themselves.

I had always assumed supporters of permanent normal trade relations were lobbyists for business interests and that the groups advocating free trade with China were indeed putting "profits ahead of people."

While some undoubtedly fit this profile, I began to see that others genuinely believe human rights and free trade can be promoted simultaneously.

I contacted Focus on the Family, a Colorado-based group closely identified with the "religious right." They told me that engaging with China is poor policy and that it will remove our leverage to negotiate economic and social reform.

The Washington-based Family Research Council has a similar stance. Both groups suggest America withdraw from China until its human-rights record improves.

The problem with this "do-nothing" approach is that China is used to isolation. The Chinese were left alone for centuries, and it's only relatively recently that so much dialogue has gone on with the outside world. Other than to can help China become a freer society.

So is trade the answer? I researched the status of freedom in China since America started granting the nation annual trading privileges in 1995 and found things have actually improved since then.

Stephen Yates, a former Department of Defense analyst who also worked as a missionary in Taiwan, told me China has begun loosening the iron grip it has on its people. Public criticism of corrupt officials is increasingly tolerated. Legitimate free elections are being held in Chinese villages.

Free religious worship is another matter, Yates said, "but government officials no longer impose atheism, and that's a big step for them." Sure, they can do more, a lot more. But the process has begun, "and that's not a flame we want to snuff out" by withdrawing.

China is by no means alone. South Korea has clearly demonstrated how the growth of economic freedom promotes civil rights. Today it's a bastion of religious and economic freedom that boasts a vibrant religious community.

How did a community ravaged by the Korean War become so prosperous? In the 1960s, the government adopted policies designed to attract foreign investment and strengthen export production.

Again we see that trade helps facilitate freedom. Despite its geographic and cultural ties to North Korea, perhaps the most repressed economy in the world, South Korea has managed to prosper and grow under a free market.

In North Korea, the government exercises complete political and social control. This shows the level of civil and political freedom in a country is determined more by economic freedom than by almost any other factor.

Granting China permanent normal trade relations won't directly fix a single human rights violation. But it is a true long-term solution that offers greater promise than a policy of non-engagement. A well-known Asian proverb says the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Granting China permanent normal trade relations is a step in the right direction.

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AARON JACKSON, a journalism major at the University of Maryland, is a former summer intern at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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