Big vote of 2000 turns Capitol into political theater

The kids in the lemon-yellow "America" polos handing out free phone cards that called for a yes vote on China trade said they didn't know much about the vote. They had been hired from a temp agency to be political props for a day.

"We just go where they tell us," they said. Their next gig: stand under the balloons at a rally in support of permanent normal trade relations for China (PNTR) and cheer when GOP leaders came into the room. (They get to keep the shirts.)

The China trade showdown in Congress was widely seen as the most important vote of 2000. In the final hours, President Clinton was busy doling out political favors; lobbyists were writing campaign checks; union leaders were uttering political threats - all determined to see that "the people's business" got done their way. And the props and visuals were out in force.

For House majority leader Dick Armey, the key visual was a new pocket PC with Internet access. "This is hand-held freedom - a nightmare to Communist hard-liners in China," he told a pro-PNTR rally on eve of the vote. "We're going to sell a lot of them in China."

For an opposition rally, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio chose a smart, black Kathie Lee [Gifford] purse. "This handbag is a capsule summary of what this vote is about," he said. It was made at a handbag factory in Zhongshan City, China, by workers making 3 cents an hour for a 98-hour work week. It sells for $8.98 at Wal-Mart.

"Permanent normal trade relations make it more desirable for certain companies to manufacture in China without the disadvantage of having to pay a living wage," he said.

No one was surprised to see the legions of lobbyists with cellphones pounding the corridors of Congress on this issue. Access to 1.3 billion Chinese consumers - or to 1.3 billion low-wage workers - is a critical outcome for many US firms.

But the process was puzzling for newcomers to the nuts and bolts of US politics, such as the scores of Chinese dissidents who tried to make their way past junior staff and into lawmakers' offices. "Many congressmen say they agree with me, and yet they come out for PNTR. And they can't explain the reason," says Wei Jingsheng, one of the founders of China's democracy movement, who spent 19 years as a political prisoner.

He worries that money rather than principles may be deciding this outcome, which was unknown at press time. "Communist Party propaganda says that American politics can be bought by capitalists. In the past, Chinese people didn't believe what the Communist Party said, because they always lied. But perhaps because of this battle we can see that the communists were right."

Dimon Liu, who worked with Mr. Wei, says she was impressed with how seriously many congressmen were taking the issue. "We were talking with [Florida Democrat Peter] Deutsch, when he was called to a meeting with the president on this issue. He seemed genuinely conflicted and concerned ...," she says. "It's tough for us when the president of the United States becomes a lobbyist."

Olin Clayton, from United Steelworkers Union Local 713 in Decatur, Ill., had a similar experience. "Half the time you only get to meet with a legislator's aide," he says. "Then sometimes they tell you they're with you, and you find out later they're not. It's politics. I guess that's what they call it."

Labor unions and environmentalists got together for the fight over the 1993 NAFTA vote that opened markets in North America. But human rights activists, religious groups, and (certainly) the veterans groups that worked the halls of Congress this week were all new and even unexpected additions to the coalition of nay-sayers on swift and pure globalization.

"We're getting much more diverse," says Daniel Seligman, director of the Responsible Trade Campaign for the Sierra Club. "Environmental groups have worked with labor and consumer groups on trade issues, but none of us expected to be working with conservative groups such as the American Legion and VFW."

Still, the new allies rarely mingled. Veterans groups held their own opposition rally, rather than show up for the misty, last-shot event on the steps of the Capitol on the eve of the vote.

The key visual props of that event were the sea turtles. They were recruited from the offices of Public Citizen (a consumer group) about two hours before the rally. "They just came in and asked if any of us wanted to wear these turtle suits," said Nathan Wilcox. No one in a turtle suit was quite sure how eliminating the annual review of China's trade status would hurt turtles.

But the turtles were genuinely puzzled as to why kids like them would be handing out pro-PNTR telecards. "They accosted us coming off the Metro. I don't know if they were really informed," said Mr. Wilcox.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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