By David Moberg
The impending approval of a permanent normal trade relationship - PNTR - with China was a setback for the cause of regulating the global economy to promote human and workers rights, environmental protection and democracy. But the loss is not a permanent defeat - and even opens some opportunities.
PNTR was never an ideal issue for such a high-profile fight. Even if Congress had kept annual trade reviews, China almost certainly would have entered the World Trade Organization anyway, and multinational corporations from the United States and elsewhere would have continued to step up their investments in China to take advantage of its huge, cheap labor force. Rejecting PNTR would have been symbolically important as a statement that trade and human rights should be linked, and it would have allowed greater leverage over China, but politicians were reluctant to effectively use the influence they had.
What does this mean for President Clinton's legacy? Time and again, except when it really counted, Clinton argued for the necessity of labor, environmental and consumer protections in the rules of the new global economy. But whenever it mattered, he turned with an outstretched hand toward the corporate money that has so corrupted American politics.
While there's good reason to be cynical about the Democrats, it would be a mistake to abandon the battle for the party's direction to corporate apologists like the Democratic Leadership Council. As a price for their support, unions and others working within the Democratic Party should insist that Democrats make strong commitments to workers rights and environmental safeguards in all international agreements and economic institutions, such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank.
While China's government richly deserved - and should continue to get - criticism for its record on human and workers rights, the battle over PNTR shifted the focus of the debate away from the two central issues of the "Seattle coalition": drawing up new rules for the global economy that subordinate trade to human development and democracy, and making corporations more accountable to workers and citizens, wherever they operate.
The proponents of PNTR claimed that more trade and investment would promote democratic values in China. They should be held to that promise. Whether they're shutting down plants in the United States or making new investments in China, Mexico or other countries, corporations - and not simply the high-profile consumer goods manufacturers - should be the targets of popular campaigns questioning their claims: How does throwing American workers out of their jobs advance human rights? Will they agree to independent unions in their Chinese factories (or their American ones, for that matter)? Will they pay a living wage, whatever the country? Will they protect the safety of workers and the surrounding environment?
The more the movement can focus on the failures and abuses of multinational corporations, the stronger the case will be for new rules for the global economy. China's entry into the WTO in the near future makes that fight even more critical.
David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.