China for Sale

Lloyd Doggett is one of the more deliberative members of the House of Representatives. On the recent $1.6 billion military aid package for Colombia, he remained undecided until the day of the vote, then opposed the Clinton Administration’s plan to arm a repressive and unstable government.

In the debate over permanent normal trade relation status for China (P.N.T.R.), Doggett is caught between the administration and the demands of many of his Travis and Williamson County constituents. (He is also one of a few members of Congress encumbered by a moral code.) Then there is the interest of Doggett’s biggest constituent, billionaire Michael Dell, who would like wide-open trade with China – as would Dell’s employees and most of the NASDAQ North End of the Tenth Congressional District.

Yet the Clinton Administration’s final major trade initiative is opposed by the best of Congress, led by Minority Whip David Bonior and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. In the Texas Democratic delegation, only Ciro Rodríguez of San Antonio opposes the measure to abandon the annual review of China’s trade status. And Joe Barton of Ennis is the only Texas Republican opposed to the bill. The Republican party line is laid out in the standard rhetorical excess of Majority Leader Dick Armey: “The would-be speaker of the House [Gephardt] is too tied to big labor and trial lawyers to recognize the new economy.”

Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky admits there is not yet enough support for P.N.T.R. in the House, with the vote scheduled during the week of May 22. Bonior is backed by approximately 140 of the 211 Democrats, and forty-three of 233 Republicans oppose P.N.T.R. The corporate lobby is buying TV ads in the districts of undecided members of Congress. Labor is engaged a valiant but much smaller campaign, and the fate of the China trade bill will be decided by undecided Democrats – who in Texas include Doggett, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, Gene Green, Ken Bentsen, and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston, and Ruben Hinojosa of McAllen.

Labor fears job flight, as capital chases low wages in China. Human rights advocates fear that without the current annual review of China’s trade status, the U.S. will not be able to push China in the direction of expanded democracy and respect for human rights. There is little distinction between the two positions. A living wage is a basic human right. And workers’ rights are human rights.

That is the argument made by Dimon Liu, a Chinese-born human rights activist who works in Washington, D.C. In an interview in the Observer offices, Liu said that change in China is at best difficult. But without a proper U.S.-China policy, democratic reform in China is impossible. “Workers in China earn thirteen to nineteen cents an hour and work in conditions worse than slavery,” Liu said. “P.N.T.R. is an unholy alliance with tyranny.”

Liu was part of a caravan of Teamsters, steelworkers, farmers, and human rights activists who visited Houston, Dallas, Austin, and McAllen, trying to win over undecided Democrats. She was translating for Wang Xizhe, one of China’s most prominent dissidents.

Wang Xizhe is a journalist and intellectual who spent seventeen years in prison for criticizing the Chinese government. While he was in prison, he didn’t produce any product for sale, though he said tea was prepared and packaged for sale in one of the prisons where he was held. The question about prison labor, Wang Xizhe said, misses an important point. “I’m not just objecting to buying products made by prison labor in China. The whole of China is a huge prison. When you have no free expression, no labor organization, and the low wages that are paid to workers, you have a huge prison.” The passage of P.N.T.R., he believes, is an endorsement of that system.

“It’s a difficult vote,” Doggett told a crowd at the Federal Building in Austin. Gephardt is asking for that vote: “This debate for me has never just been about economics.… I believe that human rights, worker rights, and sustainable development must be at the core of U.S. trade policy.” To reach any member of Congress on this issue, call the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Congressional Hotline: (800) 393-1082. – L.D.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST