Congress's annual wrestling match over most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status for China yielded the same result last week that it has every year since 1980. Opponents again failed to rally enough support to block the president's granting of such status, which essentially gives China the same trade treatment as most other nations.
But the debate was impassioned, and anti-MFN forces garnered 32 more votes in the House than they did in the '96 go-around. What, if anything, was different about this latest contest over China and trade?
For starters, the Hong Kong transfer is at hand. With that globe-shaking event occurring at midnight today, critics of China's human rights record had an added incentive to make their case. And proponents of continued economic engagement had a strong reason to get the vote over - before any glitches over Hong Kong could threaten the process. Many also made the case that Hong Kong itself would be hit hard by a rejection.
Also, this is the first MFN vote taken in China's post-Deng Xiaoping era, though it's by no means clear what that era portends. Still, this is another reason for critics to affirm that human rights remain a key factor in how the rest of the world community views its largest neighbor.
The congressional cross-fire over China raised the crucial points. Consider the views expressed by two influential House Democrats. Lee Hamilton of Indiana argued: "Engagement works; engagement has a proven record of moving China toward international norms." Missourian Richard Gephardt, the minority leader, countered: "Trade issues are human rights issues. If we don't stand for freedom in China, who will?"
While Mr. Gephardt has a strong point, we side with Mr. Hamilton on policy. The surest way to encourage political evolution in China is to support its integration into a global economic structure that demands fairer treatment and greater rule of law. Its desire to join the World Trade Organization and its interest in maintaining Hong Kong's economic vibrancy are two factors, among many, that should help mold China's behavior.
That behavior has at times been atrocious. Americans can't forget the brutality of Tiananmen Square. They can't forget that freedom of worship is still severely restricted by China. Or that repression continues in Tibet and elsewhere. Such abuses should be decried as long as they persist.
But the sweeping breach of economic relations implied by lifting MFN is not the answer. Economic engagement and forthrightness on human rights, hard as they may be to keep in harness, have to proceed together.