Normalizing trade with China back in 2000 was a colossal mistake

Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of arguably the worst congressional vote in this century.

On that day in 2000, the Senate approved Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with the People’s Republic of China by a vote of 83-15. President Bill Clinton signed the legislation into law, declaring: “China will open its markets to American products from wheat to cars to consulting services, and our companies will be far more able to sell goods without moving factories or investments there.”

Republican Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, the lead sponsor of the bill, remarked, “The American people support this agreement because they know it’s good for jobs in America and good for human rights and the development of democracy in China.”

While trade normalization has resulted in some benefit to American consumers, the painful costs imposed by normalization on specific industries, companies and places have fundamentally changed the United States and its politics, and not necessarily for the better.

The well-meaning but catastrophic miscalculations of Chinese intent by Congress played a significant role in shattering the postwar foreign policy consensus and helped create the populism that has given rise to President Trump (and, for that matter, Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont). As a presidential candidate in 2016, Mr. Trump specifically noted, “China’s entrance into the WTO has enabled the greatest job theft in the history of our country.”

The mistake was understandable. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, there was a sense that something had to be done. It is difficult to imagine now, but at the time of PNTR passage, there was uniform sentiment among the political class that inviting China into the community of nations would eventually produce changes inside of China, undermine the power of the Chinese Communist Party, and reduce its indifference toward killing its own citizens.

Mr. Clinton promised “this is a hundred-to-nothing deal for America when it comes to the economic consequences.” Later, Republican President George W. Bush noted while extending the deal that: “We trade with China because trade is good policy for our economy, because trade is good policy for democracy, and because trade is good policy for our national security.”

They were both, of course, tragically wrong.

By any measure — market access, national security, human rights — all the last 20 years have done is strengthen the Chinese Communist Party and weaken the United States. There are estimates that in those 20 years, five million U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost. The job losses that resulted from shifting American manufacturing to China unraveled local economies. In places such as Youngstown, Ohio, when factories closed, so did restaurants, and then stores. Then crime increased, and eventually the residents left. Small, formerly prosperous cities became ghost towns.

It’s OK to be wrong. Everyone is from time to time. But it is not OK to be obstinate or slow in recognizing and remedying a mistake. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders — who are the de facto leaders of their parties — have made it clear that normalization was a mistake. Companies, especially those with supply chains that run through China, need to recognize that our approach for the last 20 years has failed, and they need to act accordingly.

On this anniversary, we need to commit to correcting the mistake.

Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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