South China Morning Post, May 16, 2000

SAR's hope in long term lies in WTO for China

By Martin Lee

NEXT WEEK, THE United States Congress will once again examine the US trade relationship with China. The Clinton administration seeks to terminate the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a 1974 trade law, which requires the Congress to take an annual vote on whether to continue normal trade relations (NTR) with China, formerly known as most favoured nation (MFN) status.

Passage of the bill would mean that China and the US will be entitled to reciprocal trade benefits upon China's accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) based on the terms and conditions agreed between the two countries on November 15, 1999.

In the past, my party and I have advocated that the US unconditionally renew normal trade relations with China. Today, we maintain our stance that China should be granted permanent NTR with all members of the WTO and allowed to become a member of the international trade community. By engaging China in international trade, we increase the chance of China becoming a rules-abiding member inside the international system. This represents one of the best long-term hopes for bringing in the rule of law.

Perhaps more importantly, we see a window of opportunity in jump-starting the engine in China that will bring about the rule of law and human rights improvements.

As part of the protocol for accession, China has to meet a host of WTO rules. In the long run, it should be conducive for China to move away from arbitrary governmental action, and towards the rule of law, rules-based accountability, and greater transparency.

Nonetheless, we should caution against unrealistic optimism - believing that in WTO membership lie answers to all questions or a panacea to all problems. The road to reform in the right direction will be painful. We cannot count on the authoritarian government alone to do all the right things all the time. In times of political crises, real or imagined, it is bound to recoil back to its instinct for self-preservation through political control.

This has been made painstakingly clear most recently by its purge of academics labelled as members of the liberal economic or political wings and accused of 'Westernisation'. Therefore, to sustain the reforms, we need the people of China to be the engine for reform, and WTO membership for China provides the catalyst. Codification and enforcement of principles of fair trade will raise consciousness among the people of China about the concept of rights, and instil an appreciation for the sanctity of contracts. The consolidation of the idea of equality before the law is the immediate precursor to internalising the rule of law within Chinese culture.


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