One could argue that the final defeat for China trade hawks came not in 2000, when Congress actually passed PNTR for China, but in 1998, when lawmakers decreed that most-favored-nation status would henceforth be known as "normal trade relations." Once China finally secured its anodyne-sounding PNTR status, which in turn greased the wheels for its accession to the World Trade Organization, it wasn't long before its economy became irrevocably intertwined with that of the U.S. Never let it be said that language doesn't matter.
I thought of the old PNTR debate in light of two recent developments. The first, of course, is President Donald Trump's ongoing effort to strong-arm the Chinese government into importing more U.S. goods and services, with an eye towards reducing America's bilateral trade deficit. Much has been said about why fixating on the trade deficit with China is a mistake, so I won't belabor the point here. For now, I'll simply say that if Trump's aim has been to discredit the cause of combating Chinese mercantilism, a cause to which I am favorably disposed, he couldn't have done a better job. But in fairness to the president, his economic diplomacy has been greatly complicated by the legacy of PNTR. U.S. multinationals have invested billions of dollars in the expectation that trans-Pacific trade will never face serious disruption. So while China's corporate sector is invested in Beijing's success in its latest round of brinksmanship, corporate America's loyalties are divided. Even if Trump were pursuing a perfectly-crafted strategy for compelling China to end its trade abuses, that would be a difficult obstacle to overcome.
The second development, which has garnered far less attention, is the spate of recent reports on China's intensifying repression of its Uighur minority. For decades, China's central government has sought to strengthen its hold on its western territories by, among other things, encouraging the large-scale settlement of members of its Han ethnic majority in Xinjiang, homeland of the mostly Muslim Uighurs, and Tibet, with its distinctive ethno-religious heritage. While the fate of Tibet was once a cause célèbre, that of the Uighurs has never garnered much attention in the wider world. This partly reflects the extraordinary success of China's repressive apparatus, which layers mass surveillance, mass incarceration, outright censorship, and artful media manipulation to greatly limit the flow of news and information out of Xinjiang.
Yet it is also an indirect product of PNTR. The annual battles over whether or not China merited MFN status naturally brought human rights issues to the fore, and gave voice to champions of the Tibetans and other marginalized, and sometimes brutalized, minorities. The deepening of economic ties that followed PNTR had the opposite effect—rather than draw attention to all the reasons the U.S. might want to be wary of further entanglement with China, it greatly enriched those who profited from that entanglement. Soon research universities across the U.S. were receiving large infusions of capital from investors and entrepreneurs who were deeply interested in preserving amicable relations with China, not to mention a steady and lucrative stream of fee-paying students, many of whom were the scions of China's nouveau-riche. Aspirational mothers and fathers are keen to teach their kids Mandarin, so certain are they that it is the language of the future. The Free Tibet T-shirts that were ubiquitous on college campuses in the 1990s, when debates over PNTR were especially fierce, are now nowhere to be seen. That the Uighur cause has attracted little American interest is par for the course. Calling for a boycott of Israel is, for campus activists of a certain stripe, practically de rigeur. Boycotting China, in contrast, verges on the unthinkable. For one, it would require feats of self-denial that no red-blooded American consumer could hope to endure.