U.S. Approves China Trade Bill Despite Environmental Concerns

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 20, 2000 (ENS) - No longer will the United States Congress scrutinize the environmental and human rights records of China each year. On Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China, allowing free trade with China regardless of concerns about that nation’s stances on important issues.

Supporters say this will open new markets in China, promote democracy and offer other opportunities for pressuring China on environmental issues.

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Though many Chinese use bicycles for transportation, China's major cities like Beijing are among the most polluted in the world (Photo courtesy Paul M. Cohen)
Opponents fear that the U.S. move will simply allow China to continue its current practices unabated.

Until now, Congress had to perform annual reviews of China’s record on human rights, labor and environmental issues in order to approve temporary normal trade status. The reviews were required because China did not carry permanent Most Favored Nation status.

By a huge margin - 83 to 17 - the Senate has now granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China. The bill was a cornerstone of President Bill Clinton’s free trade initiatives, and the president pushed hard to make sure the bill passed before he left office.

"This landmark agreement will extend economic prosperity at home and promote economic freedom in China, increasing the prospects for openness in China and a more peaceful future for all of us," said Clinton on Tuesday. Trade competition from other countries "will diminish the role of government in people's daily lives," Clinton argued. "It will strengthen those within China who fight for higher labor standards, a cleaner environment, for human rights and the rule of law."

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic candidate for president, also applauded the Senate vote, but urged caution.

Clinton

President Bill Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin at a state banquet honoring President Clinton's 1998 visit to China (Photo by Barbara Kinney, courtesy The White House)
"Passage of PNTR is important for our economy and our security, but it is only part of what we must do to assure that America's workers and interests will fully benefit from the global economy," said Gore. "We must combat unfair trade practices abroad when they harm our working families. We must also be vigilant in monitoring China's record on human and worker rights, non-proliferation, and protection of the environment."

Opponents cite numerous examples of non-sustainable industrial practices in China that have led to serious environmental damage.

Representative David Bonior of Michigan, a senior Democrat in the House who ultimately voted in favor of PNTR, expressed the feelings of many Democrats and environmentalists in opposing the bill in May.

"On the environment, five of the 10 dirtiest cities in the world are in China. Eighty percent of the rivers in China do not have any fish in them because of the toxic pollutants," Bonior said. "China produces more fluorocarbons, which eat away at our ozone layer, which causes not only the Chinese but the whole planet incredible environmental degradation and concern. "Two million Chinese die every year of air and water pollution, and I could go on and on."

Passage of PNTR is the first step in China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO), an international coalition whose environmental and labor policies have come under harsh attack. China’s entry could hinder current efforts to make the WTO more responsive to environmental concerns, conservationists charge.

Some supporters, including Clinton, argue that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization will at least force China to comply with the environmental, labor and human rights rules of that international group.

At least one of the Senators that voted against PNTR disagrees.

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Senator Barbara Mikulski, one of just 15 Senators to vote against PNTR for China (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Will China improve its record of compliance once it joins the WTO?" asked Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland. "Unfortunately, there's no reason to think it will. The WTO simply doesn't have strong enforcement mechanisms. The WTO is a multilateral, bureaucratic institution. We cannot expect it to adequately resolve our battles with China."

Many PNTR opponents were converted to supporters after several measures were added to the bill to ensure that the U.S. could act to thwart any negative economic effects of free trade with China. But attempts to add similar assurances about environmental issues were turned aside, many as late as last week.

Clinton said that merely by accepting U.S. products, the Chinese people will move closer to freedom and the rules of international law. "Bringing China under global rules of trade is a step in the right direction," Clinton said. "The more China opens its markets to our products, the wider it opens its doors to economic freedom, and the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people."

Many U.S. businesses and trade experts seem to agree. U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky said, "Granting PNTR for China not only provides tremendous economic opportunities for U.S. workers, farmers and businesses, it is also the best way to promote reform in China and stability in the region."

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Paper mills in China, like the Anhui Wanzhi Paper-Making Co. Ltd. in Huainan City, Anhui Province, create tons of pollutants each year (Photo courtesy China-Canada Cooperation Project in Cleaner Production)
A slew of companies - including the American Chemistry Council, Microsoft Corp. Caterpillar Inc. and the National Food Processors Association - praised PNTR for opening lucrative new markets to U.S. goods and services.

Just seven Democrats and eight Republicans opposed the trade bill, largely based on concerns over human rights violations in China, and military "saber rattling" over its offshore neighbor, Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

"I believe we should engage China - but not embrace China," said Senator Mikulski.