A political-economic thought experiment: Imagine that every piece
of clothing you wear, every piece of furniture you own, and every
object you see in the course of an average day that is stamped "Made
in China" suddenly, magically disappears--poof!
Your underwear is history. So are your shoelaces, your belt, your
buttons and zippers. Your car still works--the frame and engine
were made in Mexico--but you are driving on your knees because the
seats were made in Shanghai. The battery-powered clocks in your
office (made in Guangzhou) are gone; your secretary is grumpy because
his coffee-maker (made in Zhuhai) is vamoose; the Compaq computers
(made in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone) are missing. Oh, and
the telephones don't work: Millions of telecom switches, copper
wires and fiber-optic cables were taken in the Sino-rapture.
The beauty of this experiment is that it costs so much less, in
dollars and tears, than the empty annual congressional debate over
whether to extend "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR, formerly
"most favored nation") status to China. The strength of the experiment
is its simplicity. Anyone can do it; it requires no reliance on
staged political statements; and it unfailingly reveals the stark
reality of U.S.-China relations. We both depend upon each other
for our lives.
We are already mutually interdependent to the point that hurting
the other in a significant way means hurting ourselves. It is similar
in nature to the Cold War standoff in that we both have aimed at
each other an insanely powerful weapon of mass destruction: the
withdrawal of commercial trade. This weapon works precisely the
opposite of a neutron bomb: It leaves human beings alive while making
buildings, cars, clothing and a lot of infrastructure disappear.
It is so destructive, practically speaking, it is impossible to
use. This is the MAD-like logic of the present U.S.-China relationship.
The empty but nevertheless noisy annual PNTR debate, coming up
later this summer, will therefore reach a Zen-like plateau of meaninglessness.
The votes are just not there to thwart PNTR. Still, there are sufficient
numbers of China-loathing zealots on both the left and the right
to ensure verbal fireworks for a week or two.
Let's quickly review the main reasons why the whole PNTR debate
is pointless and, therefore, pointlessly distracting from more important
challenges facing U.S.-China relations. First, not once during the
20 years in which China's trading status has been debated annually
in Congress was the threat of revocation carried out--not even after
the Chinese government killed hundreds of students at Tienanmen
Square in 1989. Failing to be enacted even after this butchery,
what kind of leverage, what credibility, does such a threat have?
Second, linking the threat of revocation of PNTR status to China's
labor, human rights and environmental crimes is logically flawed.
There is no available evidence to support the idea that making good
on such a threat would lead to improvements in China in any of these
areas. Indeed, common sense would argue otherwise: that isolating
China further would increase its sense of paranoia, push it further
into poverty, and kill the economic reforms that courageous liberal
elements in the Chinese government are supporting.
Third, the notion that China should be punished for its human rights
crimes makes some moral sense. But so does the idea that by bringing
China into a close trading relationship with the developed world,
which has its own flawed but nevertheless superior labor and human
rights standards, China's widespread poverty might be somewhat alleviated.
Lessening the likelihood of an apocalyptic war between China and
the United States (possibly triggered by Taiwan, which has always
supported PNTR for mainland China) also, surely, carries a decisive
Finally, PNTR is not NAFTA. The latter was a case of U.S. arm-twisting
of a poor nation in desperate need of cash--a fire sale at gunpoint.
China is nothing of the sort. The left-liberal critique of free
trade, forged in the furnace of the NAFTA struggles, is not relevant
in the case of China, an emerging superpower whose size of potential
annual trade with the United States dwarfs that of Mexico.
Understanding that last sentence is really the nub of the matter,
but doing so is the task of another column, if not a lifetime. I
lived in China for four years, and I'll say this: China is sui
generis, the Jupiter of nations, unimaginably large and complex
and impossible to generalize about.
It is not a vague Oriental romanticism from which I speak; it
is rather a reporter's assessment of a society larger in population
than any other on earth, most of it still plunged in poverty, and
which, in its efforts to pull itself up, is simultaneously experiencing
most of the major human revolutions since the Neolithic Age: agricultural,
industrial, consumer, capitalist, sexual, digital.
Arguing over PNTR is like arguing over burned toast while the house
next door is burning down and scattering sparks on your roof. You
may know that your neighbor is a paranoid dictator--and you may
think him also to be a God-hater, a child-beater and a polluter--but
common sense tells you that it's best to run outside to help your
neighbor put the fire out.
That is, if you want to save your own shorts.
Douglas C. McGill is former editor of the Virtual
China and China Online
Web sites and the Bloomberg News bureau chief in Hong Kong.