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Published on Wednesday, April 5, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
China: Annual Trade Review Promotes Human Rights, Including Minimum Standards For Workers
by Paul Wellstone
Corporate lobbyists believe that their campaign to give China permanent trading privileges is simply a matter of "educating" the public to the benefits of the latest trade deal. Actually, those lobbyists could learn a thing or two from the people they're trying to persuade.

In Washington, it's fashionable to look down on people who don't fully appreciate the benefits of our government's trade policies and of permanent, normal trade relations--what used to be known as most-favored-nation status--for China. Too often, critics of permanent trading privileges, or the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the World Trade Organization, are reflexively dismissed as isolationists or protectionists. There's no basis for that sort of condescension.

Most people I meet in Minnesota and across the country are a lot more sophisticated than they're given credit for. They're perfectly aware that we live in a global economy. They understand that, under the right conditions, trade and investment can benefit both Americans and our foreign partners. However, they want global competition to be based on quality and legitimate comparative advantage. They don't want a bidding war to see who can pay the lowest wages or wreak the most environmental damage.

Most people I meet are indeed skeptical of trade deals, for good reason. For starters, each new deal is accompanied by enough hype and exaggeration to make a carnival barker blush. More important, working people know firsthand that the threat of moving jobs to Mexico is routinely used to lower their wages and defeat union organizing. They see an unsustainable trade deficit destroying good manufacturing jobs that are hard to replace. They understand that encouraging corporations to move jobs wherever labor, environmental and public health standards are weakest puts downward pressure on standards in every country.

They realize that China's immense pool of exploited labor and lax regulation can only accelerate this race to the bottom, especially if we end Congress' annual review of China's trading privileges. The whole point of the review is to promote human rights, including labor rights.

In short, a lot of working families have figured out that they're getting the shorted. Are they wrong to feel that way? Not at all. There's ample evidence that our trade and investment policies are a major reason why inequality has reached record levels in the U.S., and why inequality has risen dramatically within and between nations over the past couple of decades.

It doesn't have to be this way. In this country, we made the economy work for working people by setting minimum standards for labor, the environment, public health and consumer safety. We managed to write rules for the domestic economy that reflect values other than just the narrow commercial interests of big business. Why should those values be banished from the rules of the global economy? Can it really be impossible to make the global economy work for working people?

Of course not. But it all depends on who's writing the rules. Right now, the way those rules are written is not very democratic. When President Clinton's first trade czar tried to incorporate labor and environmental values into our trading rules, one corporate lobbyist sniffed: "He's forgotten who his constituency is." I believe the "constituency" for our trade policies is the American people as a whole, not just transnational corporations. The rules for the global economy should be written as democratically as possible so they benefit the many, not just the few.

There's a movement underway to do just that. Following last year's WTO gathering in Seattle, a diverse coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, family farmers, students and religious leaders has emerged to rewrite the rules of the global economy. This coalition understands that raising standards overseas is not only the right thing to do, it's also necessary to maintain our own standards. Ensuring that prosperity is shared more broadly overseas also is needed to stabilize the world economy and create healthy, sustainable markets for our exports.

Ending annual congressional review of China's trading privileges is a step in the opposite direction. Though most people are miles ahead of their government in understanding the global economy, it seems their concerns have not yet registered on the political radar screen, either in Washington or on the presidential campaign trail.

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Paul D. Wellstone, a Democrat, Is Minnesota's Senior Senator

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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