Now It Can Be Told on China PNTR

Now It Can Be Told

Belated barking on China trade deal


By Roger Bybee



 watchdog that barks only after a major   plundering  will   under­standably have  its  competence questioned—as well as its loyalty. Major  media’s  performance   around Permanent Normalization   of Trade Relations (PNTR) with China inspires similar challenge to their pretensions as watchdogs for the public interest.


For months, both the news sections and editorial pages of flagship newspa­pers such as the New York Times and Washington Post happily wagged their tails in support of PNTR, and marginal­ized PNTR opponents. Normalizing trade with China was repeatedly coun­terpoised to the straw man of complete isolation of China, not to the actual position of PNTR, opponents, who insisted that annual reviews of China‘s human rights and labor policies be con­tinued. PNTR was incessantly invoked as the only means to moderate and modernize China‘s political system, while opening up Chinese markets to high-tech exports from the U.S.


Meanwhile, major media largely dis­missed the possibility that PNTR was entirely compatible with China‘s blend of authoritarian politics and an econo­my built on cheap-labor exports to the U.S. The entrance of China into the World Trade Organization was por­trayed as a means of making China sub­servient to democratic aspirations, rather than giving China veto power to block efforts to enhance global stan­dards on wages and human rights.


But once the House voted narrowly on May 24 to approve Permanent Normalization of Trade Relations with China, major papers suddenly began barking with alarm. The confident claims about PNTR made by New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman were cast aside in favor of argu­ments that had been almost entirely absent from the paper during the run-up to the House vote. Here is some page-one coverage from the Times—on the day after the vote (5/25/00):

On paper, the accord promises vast new openings for American agri­cultural goods, telecommunica­tions equipment and Internet providers, among others. But his­tory suggests that as soon as China‘s tariffs come down, new bureaucratic barriers will magically appear. . . .

China is already at work on ways to slow the promised influx of American competitors in its mar­ket. . . . There is little doubt that, once a member of the World Trade Organization, Beijing will use its clout there to work against the international regulation of labor and environmental rights that Mr. Clinton says are so necessary.

Similarly, the Washington Post’s readers were treated to two day-after articles outlining major problems in trade that will persist after PNTR is in effect:

Enforcement provisions in the WTO deal are so vague, and China’s promises to import more American farm products must be reconciled with long-standing fears that China might become too dependent on foreign countries for its food supply and with the already precarious economic cir­cumstances of China’s farmer. . . . Our headaches with China will now increase rather than decrease . . . The Chinese are going to be very vexing trading partners.

While the Wall Street Journal’s editori­alists are unequaled in their zealotry about free trade, the paper’s news cov­erage of the PNTR debate was actually more balanced and nuanced than Times and Post reporting, according to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Still, the Journal’s most damning assessment of PNTR came after the vote.

Contradicting   those   who   hailed

China as a huge potential market for U.S.-made goods, the Journal (5/25/00) suggested diat China’s real significance lay in U.S.-owned factories churning out goods for export back to the U.S.: "While the debate in Washington focused main­ly on the probable lift for U.S. exports to China, many U.S. multinationals have something different in mind. This deal is about investment, not exports,’ says Joseph Quinlan, an economist with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co."

Why the sudden alarm raised by the watchdogs in the media about PNTR? What accounts for the literally overnight shift in coverage? Once the narrow House PNTR victory became a fait accompli, pieties about the virtues of "free trade" could be set aside without endangering the outcome of the vote. The media swiftiy switched into a prob­lem-solving mode, assessing the very real issues raised beforehand by largely ignored labor, environmental and human rights advocates.

The more realistic coverage serves the interests of corporate executives and major stockholders, who make high-stakes investment decisions and require clear intelligence about real problems and prospects, not near-reli­gious prattle about the inevitable bene­fits flowing from "free trade" and "glob­alization."

However, the vast majority of Americans, those whose wages and jobs are jeopardized by the potential shift of U.S. factories to China or other high-repression, low-wage sites, are not helped by belated barking. The public clearly needs media outiets whose loyal­ty as watchdogs is to the interests of working Americans. •

Roger Bybee is the communications director of Wisconsin Citizen Action and works with the Wisconsin Fair Trade Campaign.


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