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The Impact of WTO/PNTR on Chinese Politics

Joseph Fewsmith


Because granting permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) will enable U.S. firms to compete on an equal basis with their European and Asian counterparts once China accedes to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the debate in Congress has focused largely on whether PNTR will promote economic and political reform in China. Those opposed to PNTR are afraid that the United States will surrender its leverage and that therefore reform in China will slow. This study finds the opposite to be the case. The politics of U.S.–China relations and reform are examined at three levels: elite policymakers, intellectual "opinion makers," and the broader, mostly urban, public opinion. The survey indicates that passage of PNTR would have positive effects on all three levels for U.S.–China relations and the prospects for reform. Conversely, failure to support PNTR would have an enormous negative impact, not only on Sino–U.S. relations, but also on domestic reforms in China.

Perhaps because the economics of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) are so clear—whether U.S. firms will be able to compete on an equal basis with their European and Asian counterparts after China is admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO)—the debate on PNTR has focused lately on the political issues, specifically whether granting PNTR will promote economic and political reform in China. Those opposed to PNTR are afraid that the United States will surrender its leverage and that therefore economic reform in China will slow and human rights will not improve. Nothing could be further from the truth. The "leverage" that the United States currently exerts through its annual review of China's trade status comes at considerable cost and produces precisely the opposite of what is desired. The fact of the matter is that foregoing the annual review of China's trade status will better promote economic, political, and human rights reform.

In examining the political impact of Sino–U.S. relations on Chinese domestic politics, it is useful to distinguish the perspectives of three groups in Chinese society: elite policymakers, intellectual "opinion makers," and the broader, mostly urban, public. The impact of PNTR on all three levels would be positive, while its denial would be negative.

Impact on Intellectuals

Starting with China's intellectuals, the single most surprising change in the nation's trajectory over the last decade is the dramatic change in perceptions of the United States. In the 1980s intellectuals overwhelmingly viewed the United States positively. Pictures of students...

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