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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Trade With China

Air Date: Week of

Political observer Mark Hertsgaard joins host Steve Curwood to discuss why environmental activists are getting involved in the debate about permanent normalized trade with China.


CURWOOD: Next month Congress will take up the question of granting Most Favored Nation status to China on a permanent basis. Right now, China's trade status comes up every year for review. Many American businesses say it makes it hard to invest in China's huge economy with such uncertainty. Others say the yearly review is a much-needed safety net for labor rights and environmental protection. Protesters took up the call during the recent trade demonstrations at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington.

MAN AND CROWD: No more sweatshops! No more sweatshops!

CURWOOD: Labor unions say that if trade opens up, companies will move operations to China, where labor is cheap and plentiful and human rights abuses abound. Joining labor are environmental groups. Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard is here to talk about what's at stake for them. Hi, Mark.


CURWOOD: Mark, what really concerns environmental activists about opening up trade with China?

HERTSGAARD: Well, they recognize that China has enormous environmental problems, and also quite lax environmental standards. And they feel that this agreement is not going to do anything to address that. In fact, Brent Blackwelder of the Friends of the Earth organization told me that he and other environmentalists who are on the environmental committee of the U.S. trade representative were specifically excluded from the meetings that drafted this agreement. And so he says it's not a surprise, therefore, that you've got an agreement that's of, by, and for the multinationals. And they're afraid that these multinationals are just going to go into China, exploit the market there, and not do anything to prevent the environmental disaster that is in the making there.

CURWOOD: Mark, you've spent a fair amount of time in China. What do you see as some of the real environmental implications of normalized trade with China?

HERTSGAARD: Well, clearly, the environmental situation in China is crucial to the entire planet. They are now the number two producer of greenhouse gas emissions behind the United States. They are the number one user of coal. Enormous production of CFCs that are depleting the ozone layer. Big environmental problems, no doubt about that. What would happen under normalized trade? I think it's difficult to see. There are, you know, Brent Blackwelder of Friends of the Earth says, look, there's no doubt that American technology could help China deal with its environmental problems. Energy efficiency, as we've talked about on this program in the past. China could use 50 percent less coal tomorrow if they just installed better lights, better electric motors, more efficient insulation. American companies are the leaders in that field, so there's an enormous potential there. But as Blackwelder will tell you, the agreement that the Administration has struck completely ignores those possibilities. And ironically, what they're doing, what this agreement will do much more to help, is the tobacco companies, which are on the run in this country but now will have a wide open market in China. So very ironic that we're going to be sending that kind of commerce to China, rather than the environmentally benign commerce that we could be engaging in.

CURWOOD: Now, environmental activists are lining up with labor on this. What do both groups want to see happen?

HERTSGAARD: In the short term, they want to win this vote on May 22, to basically maintain the status quo. Right now, we have to vote in Congress every year on whether to have normalized trade relations with China. They want to keep that annual vote, so that there is some leverage over China. The labor unions in particular are concerned about labor rights in China. They point out that there are no independent trade unions in China, and that if you dissent from the government you end up in jail. Likewise with environmental activism. And so, both labor and environmentalists want to win the vote on the 22nd and keep the status quo.

CURWOOD: But has this one-year-to-year agreement with China, has it ever been enforced? Have we ever stopped trading with China?

HERTSGAARD: No. Every year, there has been an agreement to continue trade, but it has often been very close. And what the labor and environmentalists would argue is that, look, that's how we've been able to enforce some degree of leverage over this. And human rights activists, too, will tell you that China has released some dissidents in advance of these votes. They've treated their people a little better in advance of these votes. If we let go of this and basically give China carte blanche, you're going to see the end of those kinds of relaxations.

CURWOOD: Mark, there's a lot of political positioning, of course, going on now as the vote comes closer and closer up on Capitol Hill. How do you see people lining up?

HERTSGAARD: This is going to be a huge fight, Steve. The president has said this is his number one foreign policy priority for the rest of the year. And yet the Democratic Party is split on this. Vice President Gore has waffled, saying originally with a big wink and a nod to the AFL-CIO that he would do a different deal, a more sensitive deal than President Clinton. Then Gore has pulled back from that. It looks like it's going to pass in the Senate, going to be much tighter in the House of Representatives. There are swing votes of about 75 Democrats, largely. And they are going to be really whipsawed between now and May 22, between, on the one hand, the White House's pressure and the enormous pressure of the business community. And on the other hand, two of their key constituencies, labor and environment.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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