SYNOPSIS: China deserves PNTR, in order to give hope to its liberalizers

You could argue that the question whether to grant China "permanent normal trade relations," or P.N.T.R., is mainly a procedural issue. The United States won't be reducing any existing trade barriers; all the concessions in terms of opening markets will come from the Chinese side. Nor will we in any way be dropping our guard against Chinese espionage, abandoning our commitment to the defense of Taiwan, or otherwise pretending that the Chinese government is any better than it is.

But the debate over P.N.T.R. isn't about the literal content of the measure itself; it's about the symbolism. For labor, blocking P.N.T.R. would be a demonstration of clout -- even though the trade arithmetic suggests that union members as a group would if anything benefit from China's offered concessions. For those who understandably abhor China's current rulers, blocking P.N.T.R. would be a slap in the face of undemocratic regimes everywhere -- even though nobody really thinks that a rejection would drive those rulers from power.

There is nothing wrong with taking symbolic stands in politics -- and China's government has done nothing to merit kid-glove treatment. The trouble is that whatever symbolism a defeat for P.N.T.R. might have here in the United States, it would have even more powerful symbolism elsewhere -- and in a way that would ultimately hurt the very causes the opponents of trade normalization say they hold dear.

The reason I support P.N.T.R. -- not with a completely clear conscience, but because the alternatives seem so much worse -- is that I remember what the world was like a couple of decades ago. Back then, the tide seemed to be running against everything we stand for; khaki-clad dictators, who ruled their nations' economies as well as everything else with an iron hand, seemed to be the men of the hour. The idea that by the year 2000 Western ideas -- not just the ideology of the free market, but the principle of liberal democracy -- would have spread farther than ever before would have seemed implausible. But it happened, largely because governments in the developing world became aware of how well some countries had done by opening themselves to the world market.

After all, Deng Xiaoping didn't decide to liberalize China's economy because he was a nice guy, or a secret admirer of Adam Smith; he looked at Taiwan and South Korea and realized that their export-led, market-driven growth was delivering something Maoism never could. And post-Deng China -- for all its ham-handed repression -- has become a far freer, more open society than anyone could have imagined 25 years ago, mainly because all-out totalitarianism and a market economy don't mix. You don't have to be a disciple of Friedrich Hayek to believe that free markets and a free society have some affinity, and that the world has become more democratic over the last two decades partly because it has also become more market-oriented.

So think what a rejection of normal trading relations with China would in effect say to governments -- China's government and others -- that are still wavering in their commitment to freer economies and their willingness to accept the loss of political control that such economic liberalization usually brings. It would be as if the United States, the home of the free-market/free-society ideology, were to say "Sorry; markets and democracy work for us, but we aren't letting any more countries into our club."

Of course, the opponents of normal trade relations insist that they don't mean to convey any such message. Of course, they assure us, the door remains open to countries with sufficiently democratic regimes and with adequate labor protection. Give us a decent government in China, they say, one that lets labor unions organize, and we'll open up the door. But few people in the developing world -- or for that matter in Washington -- think that such assurances are sincere; they believe that anything short of political perfection will be used as an excuse to block exports, that any labor protection that does not price developing countries out of world markets will be deemed inadequate.

So the opponents of normal trade relations with China are right -- it's an issue whose symbolic importance is much larger than its direct economic implications. But that symbolism is a reason to vote fornormalization, not against it.

Originally published in The New York Times, 5.10.00