Thanks to support of House Republicans, President Clinton won passage of the House bill giving China most favored nation trading status. Unfettered, market-driven, corporate dominated free trade is what Clinton has wanted most from his presidency. He passed the North American Free Trade Agreement with the support of 39 percent of the House Democrats. For China, his support dwindled to 35 percent. When it comes to economic policy, Clintonian Democrats -- a minority in the Democratic Party -- seem more and more akin to mainstream Republicans. But it's money, not ideology, that binds them. Both sides worship at the altar of corporate campaign contributions.
Corporate America spent big for this bill. So did labor, but, as always, it lacked the financial resources to have real clout. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org), the 200 corporate members of the Business Roundtable spent about $10 million in advertising to promote the Clinton initiative. This expenditure came on top of the $58 million members of the Roundtable contributed to the Republican and Democratic parties this year. Citibank, for example, gave both parties $231,000 in soft money; $100,000 of which went to the fundraising arm of House Democrats to encourage support for the bill.
In actual purchasing power the value of a campaign contribution is double the investment. Implicit in any contribution is the threat that money given to one candidate can be withdrawn in the next election and given to the candidate's opponent. In other words, Citibank gave the House Democrats $100,000 for the China bill. If that money goes to House Republicans in the next election cycle, the differential in campaign resources between what the Democrats lost and the Republicans gained is $200,000. That's why money has become the currency of American politics. As Representative Gene Taylor, a Democrat from Mississippi who voted against the China bill, asked in the New York Times, "Have you ever seen big money lose?"
The China vote was determined by money, not merit. Proponents argued that unregulated free trade with China would help bind the US and China together in the realm of economics and politics. The lure of exports and financial investment may temper some aspects of Chinese policy, but don't expect Chinese leaders to simply give up on their own "great power" ambitions. The Clintonians may believe the Eisenhower-era hokum that what's good for corporate America is good for America, but the Chinese leaders have interests of their own. Trade with the United States is not going to inspire China to let Tibet go.
Clinton and his Republican allies also argued that the bill agreement will open China to American markets. And that's really hokum. The American trade deficit with China is already larger than it is with any other trading partner. We import more than we sell for the simple reason that the Chinese don't make enough money to buy American products.
What free trade is about, in the current economy, is the export of American capital and jobs, not the export of American products. American corporations want to invest in China -- and other third world countries -- because labor is cheap and there are no environmental regulations. American corporations, including financial institutions like Citibank, will prosper from the "Open Door" to China. But American workers -- and the communities in which they live -- will suffer as corporations export manufacturing jobs to China. The evidence is all around us. Go to Wal-mart and check out the number of products, often made by American companies, that are manufactured in China.
The battle over trade will continue even if the Senate approves the House-passed legislation. Proponents will attempt to marginalize the opposition. But opponents include not just environmentalists and the AFL-CIO. They include include the Catholic Church, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan. Who has a popular majority? We'll never know. Big money owns presidential candidates Bush and Gore who both favor the Clintonian position of corporate dominated international trade.
I admit to being uncomfortable with some of my political bedfellows. Helms and Buchanan oppose free trade with China because they don't like foreigners. Their idea of an isolationist America -- our shores shut to foreign trade, foreign culture, and foreign ideas -- is anathema to our roots as a nation.
With Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan opposing the China initiative, one needs to be clear about why he or she objects to Clinton's globalization strategy. Globalization is here to stay and trade between nations ought to be encouraged when conditions are right. But corporate boards, and politicians who get their money, should not be allowed to dictate the form of the debate. It's not trade that we're against; it's who makes the rules of trade -- and who benefits by its international flow. Labor unions, farm organizations, human rights and environmental groups, as well as representatives from communities who stand to gain or lose from international trade, all ought to have a place at the table where trade agreements are made.
Yes, such negotiations will be inefficient. Democracy is unwieldy but there is more to human endeavor than getting the trains to run on time. The China trade bill, like the agenda of the World Trade organization, puts corporate profits in command and subjugates the complexities of human existence to the demands of the marketplace. Fair trade needn't mean isolationism or protectionism. There are ways of facilitating international commerce that minimize harm to people and communities. Economic justice, sustainable development, and environmental awareness, should be a principal trading demand.
Marty Jezer is a Brattleboro, Vt., writer. He can be criticized or complimented at firstname.lastname@example.org.