WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives ushered in a new era of U.S.-China relations Wednesday, voting to bestow permanent normal trade relations on the communist regime in Beijing as the world's most populous nation prepares to open its markets and join the global trading community.
The epochal 237-197 House vote culminated months of debate that exposed deep rifts within both major parties over the pros and cons of globalization, the state of human rights in a nation still under the yoke of authoritarian rule and the extent of the military threat China poses to U.S. security.
With the larger-than-expected margin of victory the product of a bipartisan coalition assembled by House Republican leaders and centrist Democrats--the China trade legislation cleared a deeply divided House and moved to the Senate, where passage next month seems assured.
At the same time, President Clinton moved closer to sealing what may be the final major legislative achievement of his presidency. And free-trade advocates celebrated their most important victory since Congress approved creation of a free-trade zone with Canada and Mexico seven years ago.
"For China, this agreement will clearly increase the benefits of cooperation and the costs of confrontation," Clinton said. "America, of course, will continue to defend our interests but at this stage in China's development we will have more positive influence with an outstretched hand than with a clenched fist."
The vote was a landmark victory for most of American business and bodes especially well for California, whose technology, entertainment, telecommunications and agriculture industries are poised to exploit the openings in China's market.
Under the legislation, the United States would eliminate the annual congressional reviews of China's trade status that have been a source of tension since Beijing's bloody crackdown on dissent in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The bill would create a new commission to monitor human rights and working conditions in China. It mandates other steps designed to ensure that Beijing honors its promises and to protect U.S. industries from the threat of an avalanche of Chinese imports. Those provisions, embraced after much hesitation by Republican leaders, were the fruit of efforts to find bipartisan compromise.
Nonetheless, the vote was a blow to leaders of industrial trade unions, who mounted a massive lobbying campaign in Washington and around the country to defeat the bill on grounds that it would cost hundreds of thousands of American jobs. It also disappointed the coalition that labor formed with environmentalists and human-rights activists to fight for reform of an international trading system that they believe has forsaken working people and put natural resources in jeopardy.
Rights Monitoring Plan Is Assailed
In Beijing, the government praised the House vote as "wise." But a spokesman for the Trade Ministry called the creation of a commission to monitor human rights in China an "unacceptable" attempt to interfere with the country's internal affairs.
"Some articles contained in the bill which attempt to interfere in China's internal affairs under the pretext of human rights are unacceptable," the Xinhua news agency quoted a government spokesman as saying.
Enactment of the measure, both sides agreed, would thrust U.S.-China relations on the threshold of a change greater than any since the two countries established normal diplomatic contacts in 1979 under President Carter.
The House debate centered on the nature of that change: Would expanded U.S. commerce hasten the decline of totalitarian forces in China, as Clinton claimed, by giving a society with 1.2 billion consumers more access to Western products and ideas? And would American industry, as business lobbies asserted, play a key role in the attempt to influence China's development through economic engagement?
Or would the end of Washington's yearly vote on U.S.-China trade, as opponents claimed, give undue comfort to communist hard-liners in Beijing who threaten democratic forces in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet? And would it, as union leaders argued, merely help multinational corporations gain unfettered access to a nearly bottomless source of cheap and easily exploited labor?
Proponents of the bill insisted that the vote would position the United States to influence momentous events unfolding on the far side of the globe.
"The fact is, the genie's out of the bottle," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). The Chinese people, he said, "are getting a taste of freedom and they're thirsting for more."
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, one of the few members of the House Democratic leadership to back the bill, said: "As the most powerful nation on earth, we have a responsibility to engage China--the most populous nation in the world--and move it, if we can, toward democratic reform, open markets and respect for human rights."