US-China relations are on the verge of a new, post-Tiananmen Square era, following a decade of wrangling in Congress over the ways in which the world's most populous nation oppresses its own citizens.
Wednesday's House vote to approve permanent normal trade status for Beijing won't end US complaints about Chinese government behavior. Getting a divided China to live up to free-trade promises is likely to require constant pressure - and discussions about human rights are sure to continue.
But if the Senate follows the House lead, as looks likely, Congress will in essence have agreed to stand back and let China try to integrate itself with the global economy on its own terms (view from China, page 6). The world will then learn whether the forces of 21st-century capitalism can moderate an authoritarian nation's internal policies, where 10 years of jawboning largely could not.
"The vote will contribute to the evolution of the world in a more peaceful and prosperous direction," insists Michael Oksenberg, a Stanford University China expert.
House passage of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China may illustrate an important factor of 21st century geopolitics. Like it or not, for good or bad, the world is in an era when the values of pure global economics are triumphant.
"It's clear that there is no turning back on the road from nationalism to economic globalization," says Ben Barber, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
There is significant opposition to the fact that trade often trumps human rights. That can be seen in the demonstrations that hit Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings there, and in the less-severe protests in Washington during the International Monetary Fund's annual meetings.
But these protesters focus too much on the negative, says Professor Barber. They want to stop globalization - something that might now be about as easy as towing an aircraft carrier backward with a canoe.
The challenge is to contain the current wild anarchy of the global economy by exporting civil institutions and democracy along with grain, he says. That means further opening up the processes and decisions of institutions such as the WTO and IMF.
Democracy aside, China's leaders have clearly decided that they need to integrate more fully with the global economy. They are going to do so regardless of what the US does.
In that sense, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of this week's House vote, say experts. It was perhaps more about what would happen in the United States, in terms of opportunities for US-based multinationals, than it was about China.
Failure to approve PNTR would perhaps have been judged a hostile act by Beijing. The reaction could have been harsh.
"Passing this isn't going to solve everything but failure to pass it would have been significant," says Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
China and the US now differ about where the road ahead will lead the Middle Kingdom. To President Clinton and other PNTR supporters, more trade will lead to more freedom and inevitably loosen the grip of the Beijing government.
To Beijing leaders, economic globalization will bring enough prosperity to dampen unrest without threatening their authority. "They know they're going down a risky road with globalization, but they feel that in the end, the alternative is more risky," says Mr. Lardy.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society