Under the Trade Act of 1974, China was designated, alongside the Soviet Union and other socialist states, a non-market economy. As such, it could only be granted MFN status under certain preconditions. In 1980, as relations between the two countries thawed, the U.S. conditionally granted China MFN status. That status, however, had to be renewed annually, which gave China’s critics in Congress an annual opportunity to question the wisdom of doing so. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, an alliance of economic nationalists, human-rights activists, and anti-communists sought to deny China MFN status every year. And every year that alliance was defeated by those who insisted that by opening the American economy to Chinese imports, the United States would gently nudge Beijing towards economic liberalism, multiparty democracy, and a rejection of hegemonic designs—predictions that haven’t exactly been borne out.
One could argue that the final defeat for China trade hawks came not in 2000, when Congress actually passed PNTR for China, but in 1998, when lawmakers decreed that most-favored-nation status would henceforth be known as “normal trade relations.” Once China finally secured its anodyne-sounding PNTR status, which in turn greased the wheels for its accession to the World Trade Organization, it wasn’t long before its economy became irrevocably intertwined with that of the U.S. Never let it be said that language doesn’t matter.
I thought of the old PNTR debate in light of two recent developments. The first, of course, is President Donald Trump’s ongoing effort to strong-arm the Chinese government into importing more U.S. goods and services, with an eye towards reducing America’s bilateral trade deficit. Much has been said about why fixating on the trade deficit with China is a mistake, so I won’t belabor the point here. For now, I’ll simply say that if Trump’s aim has been to discredit the cause of combating Chinese mercantilism, a cause to which I am favorably disposed, he couldn’t have done a better job. But in fairness to the president, his economic diplomacy has been greatly complicated by the legacy of PNTR. U.S. multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the expectation that trans-Pacific trade will never face serious disruption. So while China’s corporate sector is invested in Beijing’s success in its latest round of brinksmanship, corporate America’s loyalties are divided. Even if Trump were pursuing a perfectly-crafted strategy for compelling China to end its trade abuses, that would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
The second development, which has garnered far less attention, is the spate of recent reports on China’s intensifying repression of its Uighur minority. For decades, China’s central government has sought to strengthen its hold on its western territories by, among other things, encouraging the large-scale settlement of members of its Han ethnic majority in Xinjiang, homeland of the mostly Muslim Uighurs, and Tibet, with its distinctive ethno-religious heritage. While the fate of Tibet was once a cause célèbre, that of the Uighurs has never garnered much attention in the wider world. This partly reflects the extraordinary success of China’s repressive apparatus, which layers mass surveillance, mass incarceration, outright censorship, and artful media manipulation to greatly limit the flow of news and information out of Xinjiang.