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Film Industry Lobbies for China Trade Bill

May 23, 2000|JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Hollywood super lobbyist Jack Valenti was hobnobbing at the Cannes Film Festival last week but not even that elite extravaganza could distract him from the less glamorous role he is playing back home: lobbying for the new trade deal with China.

Valenti took time from his four-day trip on the Riviera to call six wavering House members in Washington and urge them to support a bill that would normalize U.S.-China trade ties.

The calls were hardly isolated incidents. Valenti and other entertainment industry officials, hungering after China's huge potential market for U.S. movies, have talked to 28 key lawmakers--including several from California--to drum up backing for the measure.

And Hollywood's effort is just one piece of the broader lobbying strategy devised by a vast coalition of business interests in the run-up to a House vote, now expected Wednesday, on the China legislation. Advocates systematically have focused on its impact on different sectors of the economy--from auto parts to transportation and films.

"What we have done is to make a case that virtually every sector of the U.S. economy will have benefits," said Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade. "The way to make the case for [the bill] on Capitol Hill was to explain how working men and women in each of these sectors would benefit."

The measure's opponents, led by labor unions, are working hard to persuade lawmakers that it would harm these workers--and cost some of them their jobs--by opening up another source of cheap labor for U.S. businesses. The bill's foes also argue that the deal would sacrifice U.S. leverage in forcing concessions on human rights from Beijing.

But the film industry's involvement in the debate is a testament to the broad and diverse nature of the business interests arrayed in favor of the measure.

"It's not just about selling cell phones to the Chinese," said Johanna Schneider, spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, a lobby group representing more than 200 U.S. corporations. "It's about everything. If there isn't a current market [in China] for a product or service, there will be five, 10, 20 years from now."

The bill coming up in the House would grant China permanent normal trade relations. Currently, Beijing's trade status is subject to an annual vote. The measure is expected to pass the Senate easily later this year, but the outcome in the House hinges on a relative handful of undecided lawmakers.

A Few Dissenting Voices in Hollywood

There have been some voices from Hollywood opposed to broader trade rights for the Chinese. Actress Goldie Hawn appeared Monday on Capitol Hill to argue against the trade legislation--the second time she has done so in recent weeks.

But the major studios have been working for months in support of the China deal. The motion picture association formed a lobbying committee that included Valenti and Disney chief Michael Eisner, who pressed the issue when he met with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in California, along with other studio heads and their Washington representatives.

Valenti's group invited wavering lawmakers to private screenings of a popular Chinese movie, "Lover's Grief Over the Yellow River."

The industry also joined the coalition of business groups that has been meeting once a week to plot lobbying strategy on the China trade deal. Time-Warner has helped the coalition write scripts and develop pro-trade ads now airing around the country.

President Clinton on Monday continued to lobby the remaining fence-sitters, in person and on the phone. One California lawmaker who had been leaning against the trade bill changed his mind on Monday. Rep. Tom Campbell (R-San Jose), who is seeking this fall to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said that he has decided to vote for the bill.

Campbell said he feared that failure to approve the trade deal "would compel the Chinese government to respond with extremely high tariffs on American goods exported to their markets."

For Hollywood, there are lots of reasons to be pushing for more trade with China--1.3 billion reasons, to be precise. That's how many potential new viewers there are for U.S. movies in a market that has been largely closed to Hollywood's wares.

The Chinese government has allowed only about 10 foreign films a year to be imported, with half the revenues going to China and half to studios. (Among this year's imports are "The Matrix," "Stuart Little," "Double Jeopardy" and "The General's Daughter.")

One of the many business issues riding on the House vote is whether China will make good on agreements made last year to further open its market to the U.S. entertainment industry. China agreed with U.S. negotiators to double the import quota limit to 20 films, with promises of more in the future. China also agreed to reduce tariffs on films and to increase foreigners' right to own and build movie theaters in China.

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