SPRINGFIELD, Mass. A small group of human rights and environmental activists arrived on the doorstep of U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, determined to make their point that expanded trade with China is a bad idea.
But they never saw Mr. Neal, a fence-sitter who is a target in the midst of a furious campaign to defeat the top legislative priority of the Clinton administration this year.
Mr. Neal is one of about 40 of undecided House Democrats who can make or break the White House bid to grant China permanent access to the U.S. market, a status known as normal trading relations (NTR).
So, the anti-globalization group Public Citizen and its allies mounted a political assault on this sleepy Massachusetts town Wednesday in an effort to win Mr. Neal’s vote against the measure.
“I appeal to you to make phone calls, and ask your friends to tell your representative to be with us,” Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng told a group of 25 demonstrators who had gathered in front of Mr. Neal’s office in a cold morning rain.
Mr. Wei was part of a Public Citizen bus tour through the Northeast that had stops planned in six congressional districts. Both supporters and opponents of permanent NTR for China are using the congressional recess to take their case to the public and to the undecided members of Congress.
But getting to Mr. Neal, who declined repeated interview requests, will be difficult, all sides in the China debate concede.
The groups that protested in front of his office have strong allies in labor unions, which have 40,000 members in the area. Mr. Neal backed labor’s position in opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. Observers say he is a sure bet for re-election, which increases his freedom to make his own choice. But President Clinton is leaning hard on him.
“There’s a lot of pressure here from labor, but also from the White House and from me,” said Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci. Mr. Cellucci, who recently led a state trade mission to China, is promising Democrats his support if they buck their traditional allies and back permanent NTR.
Rick Brown, head of the area’s Pioneer Valley Labor Council, knows Mr. Neal is under the gun.
“We’re working to give the congressman a fallback so that he can say no to the president,” he said. “And we’ve been asking members to phone his office.”
The House is scheduled to vote on permanent NTR the week of May 22. The Clinton administration, the Republican leadership and business groups still face a tough, uphill battle to eke out a majority. Approval would pave the way for China to enter the World Trade Organization under the terms of an agreement U.S. negotiators hammered out in November.
The economy of central Massachusetts is sharing in the long boom the nation has enjoyed over the past eight years, according to Russell Denver of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Unemployment is below 3 percent, and the region is slowly developing a diverse commercial base including telecommunications and insurance that could help it avoid the slumps of the past.
The state even exported goods worth $235 million to China in 1998, according to the Department of Commerce. But trade with the Asian giant is still controversial.
For starters, manufacturing, the sector most sensitive to the changing nature of free trade, still contributes strongly to the local economy, Mr. Denver said. Milton Bradley, the board-game maker, and Spalding, the sporting goods manufacturer, both have plants in the area that employ a combined 3,000. Mr. Brown worries that those jobs could head overseas if permanent NTR for China passes.
“If you look at board games [and sporting goods], you see a lot of products made in China,” he said.
The first sign Wednesday that Springfield would play host to a demonstration was a billboard truck sponsored by the United Steelworkers of America. Under a picture of a Chinese man being throttled by two police officers was the caption: “Don’t reward oppression. Say NO to permanent normal trade for China.”
But the groups that assembled in front of Mr. Neal’s office have reasons for opposing increased trade with China that are different from labor’s. Annette Ramos of the Sierra Club believes that the prospect of having China in the WTO will resonate with Massachusetts citizens, who have witnessed numerous environmental battles.
“The WTO hands out rulings that favor fishermen over sea turtles and oil companies over clean air,” she said.
Choying Rangdol emigrated to the United States from Tibet in 1996, and is a member of the Tibetan Association of Western Massachusetts. He views trade with China as immoral in the face its brutal occupation in his homeland and believes Americans support his cause.
“The American people, especially young people, have a lot of sympathy for Tibet,” he said.
One of them, Matt Kozick, a member of Students for a Free Tibet at the University of Massachusetts who lives in Mr. Neal’s district, was at the rally. After the chants of “No blank check for China” subsided, the demonstrators headed into Mr. Neal’s office, and Mr. Kozick asked to speak with him.
After being told that Mr. Neal was not in and not expected anytime soon, Mr. Kozick complained that Mr. Neal’s office had not responded to requests for a meeting, so an aide took his number again. Mr. Wei and a member of the Tibetan community piped up in opposition to permanent NTR for China.
The group then filed out of the office and headed off to the next rally in Boston with hundreds of members of the AFL-CIO.
Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey, also undecided on the issue, was the next target.