The PNTR Debate is Pointless

Doug McGill

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 moral weight. 

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.

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Doug McGill is a writer in Rochester, Minnesota.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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