China Trade Bill Makes for Strange Bedfellows

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Some old-fashioned class politics may determine the outcome of President Clinton's bill to normalize trade relations with China — which is why he'll depend on the GOP to carry the day. The legislation presented to Congress Wednesday extending permanent normal trading partner status to China, a prerequisite for that nation's entry into the World Trade Organization, is fiercely opposed by U.S. labor but for the most part enthusiastically endorsed by U.S. business. And the fact that the White House is relying on the votes of GOP senators and representatives but having to fight hard to win the requisite Democratic support is a reminder that even in these days of New Democrat/Compassionate Conservative centrism, the formula that casts the GOP as the party of business and the Democrats as the party of labor hasn't been entirely forgotten. Indeed, while George W. Bush has firmly endorsed China's entry into the WTO; Vice President Gore, mindful of Senator Bradley's challenge from the left, has waffled on the issue, hoping to keep the AFL-CIO on board for his nomination by promising at one point to renegotiate the terms of the China deal struck by his administration.

While passage in the Senate appears relatively safe — even if the quid pro quo may turn out to be legislation to boost Taiwan's defenses — only 50 or 60 House Democrats are currently on board. In a speech at Johns Hopkins University Wednesday, President Clinton appealed to Democratic skeptics by painting WTO membership as a kind of liberalizing crowbar that would force open China's closed society. But the fact that Beijing's human rights record actually deteriorated over the six years since the President unlinked trade issues from human rights may reinforce skepticism. In the end, though, China's human rights record may not be labor's primary concern — like their corporate employers, trade union members are acting on perceived self-interest: Where the former see China's massive untapped markets as an opportunity, the latter fear the threat posed by its vast army of cheap labor. Still, with Gore having sewn up the Democratic nomination, he's expected to step in behind the administration line — and that may put pressure on the unions to cut a deal.