- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2000

The American public generally opposes normalized trade ties with China despite its basic support for the principle of free trade, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Maryland.

Strong suspicions about Chinese behavior in areas such as human rights and weapons proliferation temper Americans' strong free-market impulses and lead them to the conclusion that trade policies must take these problems into account, said Steve Kull, director of the university's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

"When respondents are given full arguments on both sides of the debate, a very strong majority is opposed to the [China trade] deal," Mr. Kull wrote in the study.

There is no "groundswell" of opposition to the Clinton administration's push for normalized trade with China, he emphasized, but the public is "very skeptical."

Mr. Kull based his conclusions both on polls conducted by other organizations, and on the research of his own team, which explored overall attitudes toward globalization.

The Clinton administration is embroiled in a tough battle to persuade Congress to pass permanent normal trade relations (NTR) this year. Approval would help pave the way for Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization.

Polling data on Americans' attitudes toward trade with China indicates that as the debate strays from exclusively commercial issues, the public becomes willing to restrict trade with China.

NTR status is an unconditional granting of trading rights.

Business groups emphasize that because the NTR debate should be over the commercial value of the WTO agreement, polls that stress this aspect are the most telling.

For example, a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News this month indicated 48 percent support the U.S.-China WTO agreement. But the question asked of respondents stated that the move is "in exchange for making Chinese markets more open and treating U.S. products the same as those from other countries."

"They found that people favor open markets in China," said Christopher Padilla of the Business Coalition for U.S.-China Trade.

But such surveys offer little insight into how the public would decide the issue when faced with arguments from both sides, Mr. Kull said.

By mentioning the advantages that would accrue to the United States, "these polls present [respondents] with a reason to have China in the WTO," he said.

More revealing are polls that test public support for normalized trade relations with China in the context of arguments for and against permanent NTR, Mr. Kull said.

A January survey by Hart Research Associates listed key arguments on both sides of the NTR debate and then asked people to make a choice.

A whopping 70 percent of respondents said they agreed more with the opponents of permanent NTR for China. Only 21 percent indicated a preference for the supporters' views.

The Hart survey was done for the AFL-CIO, an adamant opponent of permanent NTR for China. But the Maryland team believes the work is independent and credible, and Mr. Kull noted that other polls buttress the notion that a majority of the public opposes NTR for China.

For example, a poll by the rigorously independent Pew Research Center in February found that even self-professed free-traders oppose permanent NTR by 50 percent to 36 percent.

Other data, collected directly by the University of Maryland team, confirm that the public is willing to restrict trade with China in the service of other goals.

For example, 75 percent of respondents said the United States should restrict trade with China on the basis of human rights concerns, and 83 percent advocated the same approach on the basis of China's reckless weapons sales.

Respondents expressed these preferences even though pollsters pointed out to them that trade restrictions can cost American jobs, the study noted.

Mr. Padilla argued that such questions are misleading because they ask respondents to advocate profits over principles.

"Of course people are not going to do that," he said.

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