The politics of trade will always contrive to decide the most fateful questions in private while leaving public debate to chew over narrow, derivative issues. Thus, by design, the China debate was intended to frustrate popular critics and avoid the kind of full-throated, fundamental debate about globalization that’s ripening here and around the world. Congress is not voting on admitting China to the World Trade Organization but only on repeal of the relatively impotent requirement of annual renewal of China’s “normal” status as a trading partner. Under such shrunken circumstances, the smart money assumes the President will win this one, since the White House can always “buy” the last ten or fifteen votes by promising parochial favors to small-minded representatives indifferent to the international consequences.
Perhaps so, but–surprise–these are not normal times. Vigorous opposition mobilized by organized labor and many allies has already succeeded in transforming a remote diplomatic measure into a national test vote on the values of the global economic system. Details aside, the critics have framed a choice between dubious promises from crass commercial interests and the larger claims of longstanding American principles–a vote between money and values. Although portrayed by the big media as backward-looking provincials, the opponents have won the moral high ground–speaking for the future as progressive reformers, beckoning Americans to a more promising sense of what international relationships can be. Whatever the outcome, this roll call is not the climax of the China debate but its beginning. Indeed, it may become a threshold to the robust debate on globalization the establishment is so eager to avoid.
China is easily demonized, given its size and repressive politics, but it is also admirable for its energies and ambitions. Like other poor nations, China aspires to throw off centuries of stale history and become a modern, world-class industrial power. Like previous developing economies (including the nineteenth-century United States), China will play hardball in pursuit of this goal, courting foreign capital while trying to shield its infant industries from the import competition of more efficient overseas producers.
If China does gain full status in the WTO, we will doubtless witness a replay of what happened with Japan, Korea and other fast-growing nations–a long, bitter diplomatic struggle to make China live up to its promises and open its markets according to the rules. Decades of banging on Japan in this regard yielded very little, and we can expect China to be no less stubborn. Beijing is more candid about its intentions than Tokyo. In recent months Chinese officials have reassured domestic sectors–agriculture, insurance, telecommunications, among others–that its WTO market-opening agreements are “theoretical.”
The point is this: China may indeed become the focus of a frustrated, embittering politics that describes it as the new “problem child,” but China will only be the latest and largest expression of disorders embedded in the system itself. Rather than depict China as uniquely devious or evil, the hard questions ought to be directed at the design and operating principles of globalization. This malfunctioning system was not, after all, created by poor nations but designed in the citadels of advanced capitalism, especially Wall Street and Washington.