Rep. Chris Smith: When Clinton Lost China

May 24, 2024

By Rep. Chris Smith

Thirty years ago, today—May 26, 1994—America lost China.

For that was the day when President Bill Clinton infamously delinked the requirement that China make serious and sustained progress in protecting the fundamental human rights of its citizens or lose the coveted Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status that facilitates hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese exports to the United States.

As a candidate, Bill Clinton chided then President George H.W. Bush for “coddl[ing] tyrants, from Baghdad to Beijing.”

Then, seemingly true to his word, President Clinton issued an Executive Order in 1993 that specified what the PRC must do to improve human rights in order to enjoy continuance of MFN trade status.

Among several conditions, it called for “releasing and providing an acceptable accounting for Chinese citizens imprisoned or detained for the non-violent expression of their political and religious beliefs, including such expression of beliefs in connection with the Democracy Wall and Tiananmen Square movements.”

None of that happened.

In January 1994, midway through the Executive Order’s review period, I went to China, armed with a letter signed by 100 plus members of Congress pledging to stand with Clinton.

To my shock, virtually every Chinese official told me that the fix was in—the Chines Communist Party had won. Trade—MFN—would be delinked from human rights.

I didn’t believe them.  Upon returning, I reached out to then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to say “They think you’re bluffing!”

Clinton’s seemingly noble pursuit of human rights had a shelf life of less than a year.

On May 26, 1994, Bill Clinton ripped up his own executive order, signaling to China that the United States for all of its talk did not genuinely care about human rights, only trade and profit.

At a press conference that day, I said: “after delivering a tough human rights ultimatum to the Chinese dictatorship in Beijing…he turned his back on the oppressed in China… In a test of wills with Beijing, Mr. Clinton not only blinked but he closed his eyes to the pain and suffering of millions of people…”

And I said then as I say now: “If you can’t trust a regime to deal fairly and compassionately with its own citizenry, its word on other matters, whether it be nuclear proliferation or other trade matters certainly is suspect.”

On copyright infringement and intellectual property rights, does anyone trust the Chinese Communist Party?

By giving up our economic leverage, the Chinese Communist Party got rich and militarily powerful, but the Chinese people, Americans and the world—are still are paying the price for a cruel and aggressive dictatorship.

It is time to right past wrongs and rebalance the trade relationship. The first step must be repealing PNTR—the permanent version of MFN.

This is why I introduced the China Trade Relations Act with my colleague Tom Tiffany (R-WI.) That bill withdraws PNTR and only allows China to regain favorable tariff status through an annual presidential review dependent on “significant progress”  on a detailed list of human rights.

The only countries that don’t enjoy most-favored nation tariff status are Belarus, Cuba, Russia, and North Korea which begs the question, why isn’t China on that list?

Withdrawing PNTR from the PRC will also send the message to business leaders that reliance on China based supply-chain is no longer in their interests.

Congress took the bold step in passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in 2022, which has spurred some movement of supply-chains out of the Uyghur region, where the Chinese Communists are committing forced abortion, forced organ harvesting and genocide. Withdrawing PNTR will start business looking for alternative sources of goods and materials, either in the United States or with more reliable friends and allies.  It will also strengthen supply-chains for products critical to the health and security of all Americans.

And it will restore a level playing field for American workers. The PRC has engaged in unfair trade practices for decades, cratering large parts of America’s manufacturing base and often making American consumers complicit in buying goods made with slave labor.

Since being granted PNTR, China has manipulated its currency, engaged in massive intellectual property theft, and imposed high tariffs on U.S. goods, engineering a trade deficit that hurt American businesses and workers. Revoking PNTR would give the U.S. more leverage to negotiate fair trade deals with China and protect American economic and national security interests.

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine spurred the Congress to withdraw its PNTR status last year.  The world’s democracies are starting to reconsider the national security implications of economic interdependence with dictatorships.

Why should the PRC receive the same low tariff treatment as the United Kingdom, Taiwan, or Norway? Given that Xi Jinping and Putin are allied in their efforts to make the world safe for authoritarians everywhere, it is clearly in the national security interest of the United States to revamp and review our economic relationship with Beijing.

When Clinton Lost China (