ST. LOUIS — There is a compelling case for supporting China's entry into the World Trade Organization and the United States granting China a permanent normal trading relationship (the latter used to be called "most favored nation," a legalistic but misleading term).
That case is made, not because of any desire to placate the Chinese authorities, but simply to promote the long-term interests of the US.
Are there aspects of China's policies and activities - for example, its poor treatment of minorities and religions - that Americans find distasteful, or worse? Of course. However, if we had applied that standard at the outset, the membership of the WTO might have been small enough to fit into the proverbial phone booth.
More important, if we had applied that high standard to our foreign policy choices generally, would this world be a better place? Hardly. It is futile to adopt a counsel of perfection, especially to do so selectively.
From a very pragmatic viewpoint, China is a far more closed economy than is the US. If China joins the WTO, it has agreed to dismantle or substantially reduce a great many of its trade barriers. Such a benign action would benefit the US very substantially. We would not reciprocate because we have long since eliminated most of those barriers - and it is extremely unlikely that China would do so on its own without the prod of WTO membership.
Most fundamentally, there is no direct basis for confrontation between China and the US. We do not share a common border, nor do we hold competing claims for territory.
On the positive side, China has been relaxing the rules governing everyday life for its citizens. A substantial decentralization of power has taken place and greater latitude has been provided to private enterprise.
The impacts of Western culture and commerce have been pervasive, especially in the larger cities. Although we rarely think about it that way, American companies doing business in China serve to advance our human rights goals. They create safer workplaces, follow more-progressive personnel practices, raise living standards, and bring in new ideas, attitudes, and ways of thinking.
China's long-standing isolation is ending. Its senior officials say they want to be a full participant in the world economy. They acknowledge that this requires China to move to a market economy and to modernize its society.
From the viewpoint of our own national security, the US has a major stake in China's success in its effort to move out of its isolationist setting.
It is to our benefit, as a key Pacific power, to encourage the rise of a China that regularly interacts with and is at peace with its neighbors. In the broadest sense, China and the US are complementary in terms of their basic economic needs and resources.
We are China's leading export market as well as the most logical partner to help upgrade its technology through investment and joint venturing. In turn, China is the most promising new market for American business and agriculture.
In the important area of higher education, US colleges and universities are a popular place for wealthier Chinese to send their children, especially for graduate education.
This has the added potential of generating long-term personal and intellectual bridges between the two nations.
We can hope that these links will encourage China to continue opening up its economy and achieving more of the freedoms to which the citizens of other advanced societies have grown accustomed.
While private organizations emphasizing single issues are free to take absolutist positions, it is foolish for governments to do so.
Our government must balance concern for human rights against other important interests that also have significant moral aspects - such as peace, national security, and the prosperity of our citizens.
Judging strictly from the viewpoint of American interests, the likelihood is that China will be a more responsible world citizen operating day to day on the inside rather than on the outside of the community of nations.
But there are no firm assurances in such matters.
*Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society