- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 17, 2000

On the left and right, opponents of China trade are giving human rights and national security concerns as their reasons. Because the Beijing government persecutes its people and threatens our allies, they say, we should keep China out of the world marketplace and deny it permanent normal trade relations (PNTR).

The concerns are completely correct but the conclusion is 100 percent wrong. In fact, human rights and national security are the best reasons to support having normal trade with China.

The dictators in Beijing may not know it yet, but open trade with the outside world may do to them what glasnost did to the Soviets. By creating an opening for freedom, it will undermine their strong arm rule, encourage democratic reform, and make China comparatively peaceful and free.

From my economists' perspective, I put the argument this way: China's desire to win PNTR and join the World Trade Organization is part of a bid to join the vast, new world market. That market, like any market, is nothing but a system for transmitting information about resources and scarcities, needs and desires, everything that makes voluntary transactions among people possible. Information is the market's lifeblood.

That means that if the Chinese are going to open themselves to the world market, the leadership will have no choice but to allow wide information-sharing among China's people. And while information may be the lifeblood of a market, it is deadly poison to a dictatorship.

Consider. To be part of the world economy, the Chinese will need a domestic stock market. But, as Thomas Friedman and others point out, how can you have a stock market without also having a free press? Imagine in this country if every source of financial news suddenly shut down CNBC, the Motley Fools web site, Schwab.com, everything. The only information anyone had was a government official picture Gene Sperling assuring us that "the economy is fundamentally sound." The result? Instant stock market crash as investors realized they were flying blind. If no real disaster happened, stocks might soar again as fast as they fell. But so long as the screens stayed dark and there were no solid sources of independent information, the stock market would be buffeted up and down by every whisper and rumor until it ceased to function at all.

It is inevitable. The Chinese will discover that to have a real economy, they will need an objective financial press and that means a press free of government control.

It is equally true, of course, that the Chinese cannot expect to play in the world economy without free access to the Internet. Chinese manufacturers are going to be facing cutthroat competition from all over the developing world. If factory managers in India, or Thailand, or Brazil can get on line and instantly identify hundreds of potential customers and suppliers across the planet, while the Chinese cannot, who will win the business? The Internet is the highest octane form of information available. Any Chinese firm ignoring it will doom itself. Receiving orders by "snail mail" or even telephone won't cut it when the competition is making deals on the Internet at the speed of light.

Sure, the Chinese government will try to control this, but its efforts will be futile. The Beijing authorities tried to regulate Chinese web sites in January, but Chinese web surfers quickly found cyber portals through which the government gumshoes could never follow. The Internet, we should remember, was first designed as a system flexible enough to survive a nuclear war. It will always defy any government attempt to control it (which is one reason I am practically an anarchist when it comes to Internet regulation efforts here).

Internet access is today spreading like wildfire through China. Almost 10 million Chinese have already logged on and 20 million are expected to be on-line before the end of 2001. Pure economic survival as well as the nature of the web itself will demand that the Chinese roam free in cyberspace.

China's leaders may think that entering the world market is solely away to make China a powerful nation just as the last generation of Soviets saw greater "openness" as a way to revive their economy. But when that market brings with it a relatively free press and the Internet, they will find it very hard to run their dictatorship. The Chinese people will use those tools to spread information, organize politically, protect themselves from the government, and ultimately demand a voice in their own affairs.

Deep in the reptilian brain of the Chinese government the military, security forces and state-owned industries they seem to dimly sense this. That accounts for China's schizophrenic behavior as we approach the vote (asking for WTO entry one day, threatening to rain missiles on people the next). The bad elements in Beijing are trying to scuttle PNTR and the WTO deal because they fear it could mean the end of their brutish behavior and they are right.

We should not be overly optimistic. The change coming to China may take unexpected and unpleasant forms. It could lead to some sort of reactionary backlash or even a violent revolution. But on balance, free and open trade with China offers the best hope of turning China into a free and open society. To close the Chinese out of our trading system now would do nothing but turn China into a giant North Korea suspicious, isolated, impoverished and irrevocably hostile to the United States and our allies.

My guess is that even China's pro-WTO leaders have no clue of the threat joining the world economy poses to their tyrannical ways. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, they'll probably move into a befuddled retirement one day without ever understanding the forces of freedom they unwittingly helped unleash. But here in information age America we understand them. And that's why our hopes for a better China require us to approve PNTR.

Richard K. Armey is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas.

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