- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2000

The employees of companies favoring broader trade relations with China swarmed Capitol Hill yesterday in a bid to demonstrate that the issue does not appeal only to America's largest corporations.

"You all need to help dispel some of the misperception that this is a Fortune 500 thing," Rep. Jim Davis, Florida Democrat, told the roughly 500 employees who were crammed into a Senate office building room.

About 100 companies flew the employees to Washington for a day of lobbying their members of Congress in support of extending permanent normal trade relations (NTR) to China. But the effort to bring out support for trade with China demonstrated both the virtues and limits of what business groups have come to call "grass-tops" lobbying, that is, company-generated lobbying that has the feel of a grass-roots campaign.

Permanent NTR, which the Clinton administration wants Congress to pass before Memorial Day, would pave the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization under the terms of a market-access agreement the United States negotiated with the Asian giant in November.

The companies organized the employees' day in response to plans by labor unions to bring thousands of their members to a rally opposing permanent NTR Wednesday.

"We had to get in before them," said Christopher Padilla of the Business Coalition for U.S.-China Trade, which organized the rally.

The employees' day began yesterday morning in the Department of Commerce lobby with a pep rally. Under a banner proclaiming "China Trade: Opportunity Knocks," Cabinet officials on a stage touted the benefits of permanent NTR with a group of about 30 employees behind them.

A number of them were blue-uniformed American Airlines workers. But American's main focus is not the WTO agreement.

The airline wants the Department of Transportation to award it a slot to fly into China next year. Passage of permanent NTR will not affect that decision since the WTO has no jurisdiction over aviation rights. But that did not stop business groups from seizing the public relations advantage.

"They look good on stage in their uniforms," one lobbyist said.

Many of the employees spoke to reporters about trade with China in a plain, unvarnished manner that industry officials believe could prove more convincing to members of Congress than presidential speeches.

Glenn McBeth spent three years working for construction machinery giant Caterpillar in a remote province of China. He helps manage Caterpillar's joint venture west of Beijing, which produces engine components. The WTO agreement, he said, would eliminate many of the restrictions on imports from the United States, a plus for companies in the United States.

Mr. McBeth, who has spent his career running foundries, did not dwell yesterday on the democratizing effect of trade with China, a central Clinton administration argument.

But he has experienced how commerce can provide a lever to open an isolated society. Caterpillar has brought many Chinese engineers to its headquarters in Illinois, he noted.

"They see how things are here," Mr. McBeth said.

Later, the employees hiked up to Capitol Hill for morning meetings and another rally, this one with the members of Congress who are leading the pro-NTR forces.

Employees did not show signs of being coerced to lobby their elected representatives, but some were clearly much more enthusiastic than others.

Remarks to the crowd by Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrat, put one American Airlines employee, sitting safely in the back row, to sleep in less than three minutes.

Others from the Boeing Co. had little insight into Boeing's business in China.

Information technology giant Hewlett-Packard asked for volunteers and got Claudia Keith and Carolyn Kuhn, who brimmed with enthusiasm for the chance for their company to get into the Chinese market.

Ms. Kuhn, who lives near Denver, is flying to China next week to adopt a Chinese girl and said open trade was helping Chinese citizens "learn what the world is like."

Ms. Keith became interested in China through her local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Corvallis, Ore. She had written one Unitarian leader who had visited China and told her that American trade and investment in China was opening China to outside influences, she said.

"The WTO, the United Nations it doesn't matter," she said. "This is a chance to open that country up."

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