Until this week, only two key events had shifted China in wholly new directions since the Communist takeover of 1949: the start of the radical Cultural Revolution in 1966 and the start of a market economy in 1979.
Now, Wednesday's vote in the US House of Representatives that will effectively let China into the international trading system could be another giant redirection. The 237-to-197 vote ends an annual review of trade ties that was used as a yearly debate on Chinese human rights abuses and military development.
"The move will give new momentum to all types of reform - economic and political - within China, and fundamentally alter a sometimes adversarial relationship with the West," says Cao Siyuan, an influential economist here who has strong ties with the reform wing of the Communist Party.
A spectrum of figures in China argue that the step will bolster pan-Pacific security and ultimately pave the way for a more pluralistic society here, driven by such globalizing influences as the Internet, trade, and pop culture.
Increasing power of reformers
Mr. Cao says inside China's corridors of power, reformists will be strengthened while conservative isolationists will see their influence diminish.
Isolationists have long tried to limit China's economic contacts, arguing that globalization will open China to "bourgeois liberalization" or the invasion of Western cultural and political values.
A mid-ranking Chinese official here says "the party is shaped like a pyramid, with mostly conservatives who oppose political reform at the apex, and mostly younger cadres who support gradual moves toward democracy and cultural globalization at the middle and base levels." He adds that China's top leaders know that support for political reform is widespread at lower levels, and that with a building momentum eventually it will become inevitable.
"As our transnational economic contacts grow, so will the interest in using peaceful means to solve any political problems," Cao says. During the 1949-76 reign of Chairman Mao Zedong, "Mao always talked about waging war against capitalism, both at home and on the world battlefield." But China's membership in the World Trade Organization, with an agreement to play by global market rules, means that "China has conceded that the world class struggle [between communism and capitalism] is over," Cao adds.
Congress's passage of the permanent normal trade relations bill (Senate approval is expected next month) will cut away at Chinese fears that the world's superpower is trying to contain the fastest-rising power in the East. Communist Party propaganda has often tried to paint the US as an arrogant force bent on imposing its values. Although many young Chinese are fascinated by American culture, some have joined the government's nationalistic chants since US warplanes mistakenly targeted and bombed Beijing's Embassy in Belgrade a year ago. PNTR "will erode Chinese perceptions that the US is the enemy," Cao says.
In recent weeks, many prominent leaders - from the newly elected president of Taiwan, to the head of Hong Kong's Democrats, to an exiled leader of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement - have supported China's admission to the WTO.
Former student leader Wang Dan, who has lived in Cambridge, Mass., since being freed from a Chinese prison, tempered his endorsement by calling on Congress to use a bilateral dialogue and international forums to maintain pressure on China to stop rights abuses.
Democracy activist Wang Juntao told the Senate that while WTO and normal trade with the US would push forward democracy and human rights in China, a rejection of PNTR would have the opposite effect. "Economic sanctions will contribute to the growth of nationalism and anti-Westernism in China," said Wang, who was jailed on charges of being a mastermind of the 1989 protests in Beijing. "This will limit the influence of the US as well as that of the democracy movement in China."
Opponents of PNTR have argued that with the ongoing jailing of Falun Gong followers, underground Christians, and dissidents, there are few signs of progress that justify the sharp improvement in China-US ties represented by depoliticized trade. A handful of Chinese antigovernment figures who now have American asylum have argued that Washington should maintain trade as a sword of Damocles over Beijing's head.
The PNTR bill calls for the setting up of a congressional-executive Commission on China, modeled after the Helsinki Commission, to place an ongoing and focused spotlight on China and its human rights policies.
Yet some rights groups and Chinese dissidents based in the US argue that a new commission will have no teeth compared with the threat of economic sanctions that Congress has relinquished.
"WTO rules prohibit each member from imposing economic sanctions on any other member on political grounds," says one rights activist in Beijing who requested anonymity. "To some Chinese, it looks like the US has given up promoting American values in favor of doing more American business in China."
Western officials here say that while young Chinese have grown up with more cultural, economic, and personal freedom than their parents could have dreamed of, continuing party-ordered arrests of religious and political figures often cloud that trend.
Rule of law
Mo Shaoping, a Beijing-based lawyer who has defended many of China's leading dissidents, says an expansion of rights, first economic and then political, will speed up when China joins WTO.
WTO is just one aspect of globalization that "will unleash great changes across China's legal system," he says.
Under WTO mandates, Chinese courts must give equal treatment to all companies, state-run or private, Chinese or foreign, Mr. Mo says.
"Judges must start consulting international standards, and they will be subject to global scrutiny" for the first time in Chinese history, he adds. That will pave the way for China's legal system to eventually implement world standards on human rights. "China has already signed the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and gradual assimilation of outside economic laws will be followed by pressure to adhere to universal rights rules."
During the 1998 subversion trial of Xu Wenli, one of the founders of the China Democracy Party, Mr. Xu argued that the UN's guarantees of freedom of speech and association protected his participation in the would-be opposition party. "The judges never even replied to this argument," says Mo. But private Chinese lawyers are already debating the broad UN protections, and they will one day join the international community in calls for those standards to be enforced here, he adds.
"Many Chinese legal scholars agree that merely criticizing the government in speeches or writing should no longer be punished as "attempts to overthrow the state," and that the rights covenant prohibits prosecution of peaceful speech."
But one senior Chinese official says, "while class struggle on the global front may be over, it has not ended here in China." He adds that "Whenever someone tries to set up a political party or other group aimed at opposing the state, it must be crushed as a class enemy."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society