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Chinese politics and the WTO
Soruce:CCCME Author:CCCME Add Time:2013-04-03 00:00:00



WHEN trying to persuade Congress in 2000 that China should be let into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), America's then president, Bill Clinton, knew how to win over the sceptics. China's admission, he said, was likely to have “a profound impact on human rights and political liberty”. A decade on, China's disappointed liberals no longer suggest that freer trade will speed political reform.


China's media have been trumpeting the tenth anniversary on December 11th of the country's WTO accession. In China as much as in America, the event was seen as of far greater importance than a mere pledge by China to reduce barriers to its markets (moves towards which had long been under way). For both countries it was a crucial part of restoring calm to a relationship that had been marred by annual fights in Congress over whether to keep granting China most-favoured-nation trading status (as enjoyed by most of America's other trading partners). Mr Clinton's remarks preceded bitterly contested votes in Congress in 2000 that ended the annual renewal process and ensured America would share any benefits from the market-opening measures pledged by China on entering the WTO.

Chinese officials did not share Mr Clinton's belief in what he called the “quite extraordinary” change that the WTO would bring about in China, politically as well as economically. Such views were bolstered in the West by supportive comments from some Chinese dissidents. (“Before, the sky was black; now it is light. This can be a new beginning,” Mr Clinton quoted one of them, Ren Wanding, as saying.)


But even the man seen by many in the West as China's arch (economic) reformer, the then prime minister Zhu Rongji, had no truck with such views. A recent four-volume set of Mr Zhu's speeches, including many not previously published, shows him to have shared hardliners' concerns about perceived Western efforts to undermine Communist Party rule in China. “Western hostile forces are continuing to promote their strategy of Westernising and breaking up our country,” he told provincial officials in one now-declassified speech, four months after China had joined the WTO. He accused such people of conducting “infiltration and sabotage” in an effort to foment instability, pointing to large-scale protests early in 2002 by workers in state-owned enterprises (independent observers detected little if any sign of foreign involvement).


Mr Zhu's reformist zeal in the economic realm helped to foster the impression of a country willing to take considerable political risks in order to create a more market-driven economy. The then party chief, Jiang Zemin, was also pushing through a controversial revision to the party's constitution to allow owners of private businesses to become members. But high hopes among some Chinese liberals faded as the decade wore on.


Cao Siyuan, who heads an independent think-tank in Beijing, says he and like-minded intellectuals were “over-optimistic” about the ability of the WTO to promote further change, such as the development of a robust and independent legal system. The last decade has seen huge social changes, but these have been a legacy mainly of pre-WTO membership reforms, such as the privatisation of housing and the loosening of controls on internal migration.


And with the Communist Party again facing a big leadership shuffle next year, few believe that long-neglected political reforms will be revived any time soon. Mr Cao has recently published a call for a “division of powers” within the party as a step towards making China more democratic. He claims many in the party support such a notion, but do not dare say so openly. Mr Cao says police stopped him from leaving his home during the visit to Beijing in August by America's vice-president, Joseph Biden.


In his speech in 2000, Mr Clinton said that WTO membership would accelerate the shrinkage of the state-owned sector which had been “a big source of the Communist Party's power”. This, he said, would lead to “profound change”. Many liberals complain, however, that remaining state firms not only still control the commanding heights of the economy but are in some cases stepping up their resistance to encroachment by the private sector. In recent years officials have increased their efforts to ensure that party cells are set up in private firms. Several local governments have started requiring private companies to contribute about 0.5% of their payrolls to sponsor party activities on their premises.


Such was the seeming status symbol of WTO membership a decade ago that few in China openly criticised the decision. A Beijing academic, Han Deqiang, was a rare exception. His book, “Collision: the Globalisation Trap and China's Real Choice”, gave warning of an American plot to use the WTO to “Westernise” China. He remains a fierce critic. Karl Marx, he says, would have agreed with the view that economic liberalisation leads to political change. “It's a matter of time,” he says. Perhaps Mr Clinton can draw comfort.