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Past Controversies: Chinese Spying, Campaign Contributions, Normal Trade Relations, and Admission to the WTO

In 1999 there was significant concern about the security consequences of China's spying, but Americans did not seem to believe that this was a violation of an international norm. In 1998 Americans believed that China tried to buy influence through contributions to US election campaigns, but they did not think that such contributions had far reaching effects. Other major issues in the 1990s included whether to grant China most favored nation status or normal trade relations and China’s entrance to the World Trade Organization. While a modest majority or plurality responded positively to the simple question of admitting China to the WTO, when its implications were clarified support dropped to a minority.

Chinese Spying

A source of friction in Sino-American relations in the 1990s arose from allegations of Chinese spying at US nuclear laboratories. According to Pew polls in March and April 1999, about two-thirds of Americans believed "allegations that China stole nuclear technology from the United States" constituted a "very serious problem."[1] A 55% majority felt that the "loss of technology to China" posed a "major threat" to "US national security" (NBC/WSJ, June 1999), and a plurality (47%) said "the classified information obtained by China" posed a "very serious threat" to the "military security of the United States."[2]

In a March 1999 Time/CNN poll, just 50% wanted the US to "cut back its trade relations with China" because of Chinese spying in the United States (41% were opposed). [3]

However, this sense of threat did not translate to a widespread public backlash against China. When the Chinese Premier visited the US in April 1999, 64% said it was "right" for President Clinton to meet with him, even "given the recent charges of spying at the Los Alamos nuclear lab" (Fox News).[4] Why? Apparently Americans do not see it as a violation of international norms for countries to spy on each other. In October 1994, Gallup found that 66% thought the "US government should be secretly spying on" China,[5] and after the spy plane incident in 2001, 61% rejected the idea of the US agreeing "to reduce the use of American spy planes to intercept Chinese communications" so as to recover the plan and crew. [6]

Campaign Contributions

With regard to the campaign finance scandal of the 1996 elections, polling from June 1998 found that a strong majority of Americans (69%) believed the Chinese government made "illegal donations to the Democratic Party" (ABC News), and a solid majority (57%) felt the Chinese tried to "influence US policies" through those illegal contributions (CBS News/New York Times).[7]

However, the public did not respond with great alarm. The public was not convinced that any real harm was done. Of the 57% in the CBS/NYT poll who said the Chinese tried to influence US policy, only about half felt China "succeeded" in doing so.[8] Americans were divided (43% to 42%) as to whether or not "national security was ever put at risk" during the episode.[9]

Furthermore, a plurality felt that Americans were active partners in the wrongdoing. Polls found that 52% felt the administration "allowed China to get sensitive technology because of large contributions to the Democratic Party" (Gallup, June 1998); 47% believed the administration "favored China in foreign policy and trade decisions because the government of China contributed money to the Democratic Party" (CNN/Time, May 1998); and 45% even agreed that "the country's foreign policy was for sale" (Fox News, July 1997).[10] Also, the Democrats were not the only ones seen as responsible. In a June 1998 CBS/New York Times poll, a plurality also thought that American companies were giving contributions so that the government would allow them to "continue to work with China on satellite launches."[11] A June 1998 ABC News survey revealed that a slight majority (52%) believed that China had made "illegal donations to the Republican Party" in the past as well.[12] Thus, even though a plurality believed campaign donations influenced some US policies or actions, a plurality viewed the scandal as much as a problem with American campaigns as treachery by the Chinese.

Most Favored Nation Status or Normal Trade Relations

In the 1990s increasingly skeptical views of trade with China were strong enough to cause a modest majority to consistently oppose granting China normal trade relations or "most favored nation" status. Changing the term to "normal trade relations" had no measurable effect on public attitudes.

The most recent poll (Gallup, February 2000) asked, "As you may know, the United States grants a trade status to most nations it trades with known as normal trade relations treatment. In your opinion, should the US grant this same status to China, or not?" Fifty-six percent were opposed and only 28% were in favor. When the same question was asked in June 1997 and June 1998, using the term "most favored nation" rather than "normal trade relations," there was no statistical difference-53% and 55%, respectively, were opposed and 36% and 35% were in favor. When Penn/Schoen/Berland asked, "Do you think we should grant China normal trade relations, the same status as most of our trading partners, or not?" in August 1998 56% were opposed and 33% in favor. [13]

As compared to the early 1990s, opposition appeared to harden in the latter part of the decade. In polls taken in 1991 and 1993, a the plurality opposed to granting most favored nation status was, respectively, 49% and 42%, only slightly more than those in favor, at 44% and 41%. [14]

When Pew asked about granting permanent normal trade relations in May 2000, 49% were opposed and 30% in favor. In June 1999 Pew asked the same question, but varied the wording between "normal trade relations" and "most favored nation." The results were not statistically different. For NTR, 54% were opposed and 32% were in favor; for MFN, 57% were opposed and 29% were in favor.[15]

In April 2001, CBS News re-asked a question last asked in 1991: "When it comes to international trade, should the United States now give the same privileges to China that it gives to other friendly nations?" The question was misleading, in that it wrongly implied that "friendliness" is a key criterion for extending normal trade relations status. In any case, 49% said the US should not give these privileges, while 38% said the US should (June 1991: should not, 39%; should, 47%; CBS/New York Times).

An ABC/Washington Post poll that did not mention either the MFN or NTR terms, but simply asked whether the US "should have free trade with China on the same terms it (the US) gives its main trading partners," did get somewhat higher support. Most recently (April 2001) 48% answered yes, while 45% said no (June 1998: 44% yes, 46% no; ABC). For some respondents, the phrasing may have implied that to disagree with the proposition would mean to favor being actively punitive toward China, while most questions on MFN or NTR implied that granting the status was an active effort that would imply endorsement of China. The majority preferred to refrain from being either actively punitive or actively endorsing. [16]

Entrance into the WTO and Permanent Free Trade Relations

Just as Americans supported more engagement and freer trade with China in principle, when asked about including China in the WTO, a plurality or modest majority were in favor. However, when the question made clear the implications of WTO membership, a majority opposed it, suggesting this was not a particularly good indication of public attitudes for the long term.

Questions that did little to spell out the implications of WTO membership showed modest support for WTO membership. In July 2001, for example, Gallup found that a 50% plurality favored "Congress passing a law that would normalize trade relations between China and the United States and that would allow China to join the World Trade Organization"; 43% were opposed. (The same question found 56% in favor in May 2000-apparently a high water mark for support.)[17] In March, a different Gallup question found a 48% plurality supported (and 38% opposed) "the recent agreement between the United States and China that would allow China to join the World Trade Organization."[18] In June 2000, Fox News also found plurality support (44% to 36%) for "allowing China to join the World Trade Organization." [19] When offered the option of saying it will not make much difference for the US "if China becomes a member of the World Trade Organization and gains permanent normal trade relations status with the US," 25% chose that option, while a plurality of 39% said that it would be good for the US and just 21% said it would be bad (Pew, May 2000). [20] A May 2000 NBC/WSJ survey that clarified that allowing China into the WTO would mean "making Chinese markets more open and treating US products the same as those from other countries," but made no mention of increased Chinese access to the US, found lukewarm support (44% to 37%).[21] Asked if China's entry into the WTO would "lead to the US selling more goods in China," 43% said that it would, while 34% said that it would lead to the US selling fewer goods (Pew, May 2000).[22]

However, when, a poll question alluded at all to factors that concern Americans, support was considerably lower. For example, when a contrasting argument emphasizing China's existing trade policies was offered in addition to the argument that WTO membership would open up China, a plurality rejected China's accession to the WTO. A September 1999 NBC/WSJ poll stated that "those in favor [of China joining the WTO] say that membership will encourage China to open its markets to more products, including American ones," but that "opponents say that China's trade practices aren't fair enough to allow it to be part of the world trading body." Consistent with other polls showing that many Americans do not believe China is a fair trader, in this poll 47% opposed allowing China to join the WTO; 38% were in favor.[23] When the possibility of WTO membership having an impact on US jobs is introduced into the question, the more common assumption seems to be that this impact will be negative. A May 2000 Pew survey found a slim majority (52%) felt that "if China enters the World Trade Organization, in the long run" it would lead to "more jobs leaving the US" than "jobs created in the US" (24%).[24]

Questions that did not ask about WTO membership, but about establishing permanent free trade relations - a necessary precursor - did not elicit majority support. As mentioned above, when asked about granting permanent NTR or MFN with China, 49% to 57% were opposed. In January 2000 Hart Research asked two different forms of the question of whether the US should establish permanent free trade relations with China. The short version of the question simply specified that "this year Congress will consider legislation that would permanently establish free trade relations between the US and China," and asked whether respondents favored or opposed "permanent free trade relations with China." Forty-nine percent said they opposed the idea (25% strongly), while 41% favored it.[25] When respondents were given full arguments on both sides of the debate that included human rights concerns as well as economic concerns, a very strong majority was opposed:

Let me read you statements made by people on both sides of the debate over trade relations with China, and then get your reaction. Supporters of permanent free trade relations with China say that this agreement will eliminate barriers to U.S. products, expanding our exports and creating good jobs in America. They say that American business will be hurt if other countries have access to the Chinese market and we don't. They also say that the best way to improve human rights in China is not to restrict trade, but to engage China and include it in important international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization. Opponents say that China's record of human rights abuses, use of forced labor, and violations of past trade agreements means that it has not yet earned permanent free trade relations. They say that Congress should continue to have annual reviews, to make sure that China keeps its promises to open its market to U.S. products and improve human rights. They also say that Congress should only give China permanent access to our market when it agrees to meet real human rights and labor standards. Do you agree more with the supporters or the opponents of permanent free trade relations with China?

In this case, 70% said they agreed more with the opponents of permanent free trade relations, while just 21% agreed more with the supporters' argument.[26]

Americans also showed strong opposition to another component of allowing China into the WTO-eliminating the annual review of China's trade status. In a January 2000 Hart Research poll, 65% of respondents opposed (41% strongly) legislation "granting permanent trade access to the US market, with no more annual review of China's human rights and trade record by Congress." Just 18% favored such legislation and 17 percent were not sure.[27] An April 2000 Gallup survey noted, "China currently receives favorable treatment from the United States in trade matters, but Congress must review the terms every year. All other countries which receive favorable trade status from the US maintain their status without an annual review." It then asked if respondents thought "Congress should continue to review China's trade status annually, or…stop the review and treat it like other favored trade partners." Consistent with the desire to use trade as leverage over other Chinese policies, 70% favored continuing the annual review, while just 23% thought the US should treat China like other trade partners.[28]

Opposition was also very strong when the question was posed as a choice between pressing for human rights improvements and irreversibly opening trade with China without any conditions. A November 1999 Zogby poll asked, "Should the US have a permanent open market with China and admit the country to the global trade system, or should the US insist on better human rights and freedom of religion in China before we establish a permanent open market?" In response, 67% wanted to insist on reforms first, while just 21% wanted to establish a permanent open market.[29]

The argument that admitting China to the WTO would be a better way than restricting trade to seek changes in Chinese policies fared poorly as well. In April 2000, a Harris Interactive poll for Business Week found an overwhelming 79% choosing the argument, "Congress should only give China permanent access to the US markets when it agrees to meet human rights and labor standards." A mere 15% chose the argument that, "The best way to improve human and worker rights in China is not to restrict trade but to engage China and include it in the World Trade Organization and give it permanent access to US (United States) markets."[30]

Apparently a substantial number also believed that the impact of China's entry into the WTO on the US economy would be significant. Sixty percent said that that China's joining the WTO would have a "major impact on the US economy." A small minority (31%) felt it would have a "minor impact" or "no impact at all" (NBC/WSJ, April 1999).[31]



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