Vol. V, Bulletin No. 5.                                                                       March 1, 2000 

Four More Reasons To Say No to China

The governments that signed a major trade agreement last November--the governments of the United States and of the People's Republic of China--both hailed it as a momentous achievement. Human Rights for Workers was much less enthusiastic (see "Putting a Red Face on the Global Economy.")

Now the U.S. Congress, in its constitutional role of regulating foreign trade, is faced with the decision to approve or disapprove the bilateral agreement negotiated by the U.S. executive branch, which has already given its OK to China's accession to the World Trade Organization. Last month HRFW listed four reasons "Why Congress Should Say No."  Here are additional reasons for disapproving a deal that cements the United States into permanent "normal trade relations" (NTR) with China.

China probably won't keep the promises it made under 'NTR,' and will surely use its power to shape the WTO more than the WTO shapes China.

A major argument made for the 'NTR' deal is that under it China promises to end its highly discriminatory trade policies against the United States.

But will China respect those obligations?  China's record on fulfilling trade agreements with the United States is not inspiring. In fact, says Greg Mastel, director of the global economic policy project of the New America Foundation, China's compliance with the letter and spirit of such agreements is worse than that of any other U.S. trading partner.

"In recent years," Mastel writes, "the United States has struck major agreements with China on topics including protection of intellectual property, market access of U.S. exports, [China's] export of goods produced with prison labor, and textile shipments. In each case, there have been serious problems."
But the U.S. administration's expectation is that, once within the WTO, China will have to change. China will then follow the rule of global trade law as laid down by the WTO, thereby producing results that the United States has failed to achieve on its own. "Multilateralism" will be more effective, it is assumed. But of course China does not intend to join the WTO to be multilaterally passive.  Once inside, it will be an active and a leading party in making, promoting, publicizing, enforcing, and interpreting WTO rules as it sees fit.

As recognized even in official U.S. jargon, the People's Republic of China is still a "non-market economy." In China's own terms, it is a "Socialist market economy," with the first adjective carrying much more weight than the second, and China will act accordingly.

Whatever the label, a China within the WTO is indeed a cause for concern, especially since it will be joined by Third World governments lacking in support of their own people. Judging by their performance at home, China and its allies are not dependable candidates for making the WTO more people-friendly.

'NTR' will create pressures to grant corporations political risk insurance and other U.S. taxpayer-subsidized benefits for their investments in China.

In the name of promoting American exports and investment, the United States provides various taxpayer-subsidized programs, including political risk insurance, to American business abroad.  The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government agency, is a major vehicle for such services, which the Cato Institute calls "one of the 12 worst corporate welfare programs."

At present U.S. corporations cannot obtain OPIC benefits for their operations in the People's Republic of China. China's ineligibility rests mostly on its failure to respect "internationally recognized worker rights" (including the right of workers to unionize), as required by U.S. law. At least that's how OPIC has ruled over the years.

That could change under 'NTR,' however, especially as U.S. corporate investments in China mount and create corresponding needs to protect their assets in an unstable environment. What investor wouldn't want OPIC's political risk insurance in that situation? Given China's continuing horrible record on worker rights, it may seem far fetched that China would become eligible for OPIC coverage.  But the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,  with a record on worker rights no less shameful, has qualified.  And remember that, even during the most worker-repressive days of the Suharto military dictatorship, U.S. corporations operating in Indonesia received OPIC and other U.S. government benefits, despite the provisions of U.S. law to the contrary.

Rejecting 'NTR' will advance the movement to add a worker rights and environmental dimension to the World Trade Organization's activities.

President Clinton has long advocated adding labor and environmental conditions to international trade agreements. Pressures from various sides, including multinational corporations, have deflected him from that goal, most notably by the failure at last year's Seattle summit of the WTO.

Judged by moral standards, the NTR deal is another failure. It is the handiwork of those in China and the United States who cling to the belief that human issues, such as worker rights, have no place in international commerce.  Rejecting NTR will be a wake-up call to advocates of that belief.

Clinton's long-sought goal is worth pursuing, even in a manner that he, in the case of NTR, opposes.

An oversold 'NTR' that falls far short of expectations will fuel protectionism.

The unpopularity of free trade with unfree China shows up in poll after poll. In a November 1999 poll, for example, 61% of respondents agreed with the statement that "the U.S.should not increase trade with China until the Chinese government gives more economic, political, and religious freedoms to citizens." (For other poll results, see a survey conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes at http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/USChinaTrade/analysis.html.)

To counter public skepticism, NTR supporters have mounted a major campaign that stresses the many benefits supposedly in store for Americans. It "brings home the bacon to working Americans in farming, industry, and services," says the U.S.-China Business Council, adding: "It will promote U.S. employment and aid American consumers at all income levels."  The White House and Cabinet secretaries repeatedly cite NTR's manifold benefits, especially for American business.

In remarks to a business group, Samuel R. Berger, the President's national security advisor, claims permanent NTR offers "an unprecedented opportunity" for advancing long-sought goals--"a China that contributes to peace in Asia,...that upholds the rule of law at home and adheres to global rules on everything from nuclear non-proliferation to human rights to trade."  Wow.

Realistically, how can China's performance live up to such inflated promises?  Consider the nature of this particular Asian trading partner and the WTO's own shortcomings. It seems a safe bet that results will be small and slow in coming, and therefore disappointing, particularly to anyone with standards that differ somewhat from those held by trade negotiators.

In the glow of today's exuberance, the possibility of an eventual backlash seems far fetched, but it is a serious danger nevertheless.

Next: Appraise Human Rights in U.S. Too

"The goal...is simple:  to tell the truth about human rights conditions around the world." That's how Assistant Secretary of State Harold Hongju Koh describes State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1999, the latest in an annual series going back to 1977. The first volume ran only 137 pages and covered 82 countries (those receiving U.S. aid).  The latest totals about 6,000 pages in typescript and covers 194 countries and territories.

The State Department reports are unique--nothing comparable exists in describing the status of human rights around the world. But it is not complete. It does not include the United States, and understandably so. Producing a credible public report evaluating human rights conditions in other countries is a formidable enough task for a government.  Producing one on your own country--virtually a governmental self-evaluation--would strain the limits of the possible.

Yet the gap should be filled. Fragmentary assessments of human rights in the United States already exist, issued by Amnesty International, for example. But we need a report as  comprehensive as those that the State Department does for the rest of the world. And it should use the same standards that we apply to other countries--the universal norms that, as Secretary of State Albright says, are "applicable to all people."  It should undertaken as a serious private initiative, underwritten by foundations, designed neither for self-flagellation nor for self-glorification but as an honest examination of national conscience involving all sectors of American civil society.

(The new State Department report, available on State's Website, contains the customary details on individual countries but also has a lengthy essay on the meaning of human rights in an era of globalization.)

A Modest Worker Rights Proposal for WTO

Just what is it that the U.S. government wants from the World Trade Organization in the area of worker rights?  Andrew Samet, deputy under secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, addresses that question in an article, "The Labor Dimension and the WTO," in the February issue of the State Department's electronic journal.

Responding to those who consider the U.S. initiative a protectionist ploy, Samet writes: "These arguments are misplaced and plain wrong.  If the United States wanted to pursue a protectionist course, this would be a highly inefficient and indirect approach."

Samet's point should be clear from the modest content of the U.S. proposal. It asks for the establishment of a WTO "Working Group on Trade and Labor" with a mandate to address five issues. Two examples of those issues:

The three other suggested issues also seek merely an "examination," as part of a process that, given the nature of the WTO, is hardly an efficient vehicle for any protectionist ploy.

Amnesty Focuses on Women's Human Rights

"Women's Human Rights: Challenging Obstacles, Celebrating Triumphs" is the theme of the annual meeting of Amnesty International USA to be held March 10 to 12 in Providence, Rhode Island. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, will deliver the keynote speech. (For details, check AIUSA's Website or contact Rohini Verma at AIUSA's national office, phone 212/807-8400.)

Both the U.S. and Canadian branches of Amnesty International had volunteers present last year at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle, where they circulated petitions, action postcards, and other information on the connection between human rights and trade. They also hosted a forum at which their guest, Carmencita Abad, a worker turned labor organizer, described the sweatshops on the South Pacific Island of Saipan.

In explaining "why we were in Seattle," the current issue of Amnesty Now points to the widespread suppression of the right to unionize, despite its being recognized under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The editorial adds:

"In many nations, corporations are in partnership with corrupt and repressive military governments. But Amnesty believes multinational investors have a responsibility to protect basic human rights whenever and wherever they can. Not only is it the right thing to do, but in the end promoting rights is good for business. Is that too much to ask?"
Diary: Self-Help for Laziness

The older you get, the easier it gets to be lazy. I like walking, but especially on cold days, I resist making the initial effort to go out the front door. Once outside, however, I find myself enjoying the air, however cold it might be, and even enjoying a spell of jogging, however strenuous it might feel.

What's true for physical exercise is also true for mental exertion. I may have an idea that cries to be written, but instead of working on it, I push it off into my memory, assuring myself that I can retrieve it later when my thoughts are more fully formed. As I sink into an easy chair facing the TV, I comfort myself with the notion that I must keep up with the Presidential primaries in order to stay intellectually alive.

By contrast, the very idea of buckling down to write an article can be discomforting at times. No longer bound by the discipline enforced by a paycheck job, I find all sorts of excuses to do chores other than writing. I just finished compiling all the information needed for my income tax return, so I could send it to the tax preparer ahead of schedule.

Thank God for the computer, however. It helps me play a trick on myself when I feel particularly lazy. I go to the computer with the thought that I won't need to write any words beyond the opening sentence of an article.  Usually it takes time to shape that sentence to my satisfaction, but once I get it right, I'm on my way. I'm tapping out paragraph after paragraph, and soon I marvel at the size of my output.  Read the next day, the paragraphs may not sound all that marvelous, but I've got something I can work with, and even enjoy doing so.

My wife and I will be in Texas during March to help welcome our daughter's new baby into the world. I'm taking my laptop along. I want to have it handy to write down my thoughts about the wonders of this new creation. Thanks to my son Thuy's help in setting up my Internet software properly, I'll still be able to follow what's up in the wider world. I may even be inspired to write a piece or two for the next issue of Human Rights for Workers.


Human Rights for Workers: Bulletin No. V-4, March 1, 2000
Robert A. Senser, editor
Copyright 2000
hrfw@senser.com. (Send e-mail)

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