Two decades ago, the Port of Seattle decided to trade with the People’s Republic of China, a business relationship that now has positioned Washington as the biggest exporting state to the PRC (nearly $800 million in 1988), and one of the biggest importers from that country (over $1.21 billion).
Puget Sound ports are closer to China than are California’s, and Northwest business people have a sustained personable style that results in the long-term trust the China trade requires.
When the trade began, the PRC was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, one of the century’s most repressive social movements. A few years later, however, China began a process of reform that extended until last June’s attack on the students in Tiananmen Square.
Now comes an opportunity for the Puget Sound region to become the major U.S. gateway for the burgeoning China trade in the 21st century. The PRC has asked to follow up contacts with Washington officials, such as Secretary of State Ralph Munro, and with private citizen groups, such as the Spokane-based Citizen Ambassador Program and the Washington State China Relations Council, and send an exploratory trade mission to Seattle.
A small number of Chinese subsequently might remain to help establish a permanent trade mission and consulate. China’s airline might select Sea-Tac as its entry point in the United States
There is no doubt about the state’s economic stake in this development. Chinese placement of a permanent trade mission and consulate in Seattle might well lead to the Soviets’ making a similar decision; and with the relationship currently evolving through the Goodwill Games, why not? Further consulates could be expected.
Perhaps the state’s business people would be wise enough, for example, to create a citizen council to increase trade and cultural connections with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia. Only one other state, Indiana, has created such a council, and that has proven an encouraging precedent.
Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle’s planned Central Waterfront Project, with its world trade and conference center, also will help establish the region as a Pacific Rim leader. No other facility in America will compare with Seattle’s in hosting small and medium-sized multilingual meetings and negotiations.
These moves, together, would bring Seattle and the state closer to true internationalization, benefiting our universities, businesses, professions, and community organizations.
But what about the political sensitivity of dealing with the Chinese after the Tiananmen Square massacre? The answer is that a carefully constructed policy of positive contact will not undermine forces for freedom in China, but encourage them.
Trade overtures from an undemocratic regime that is both hostile and impenetrable might be spurned. But there is no point in refusing to deal with a country where conditions are as fluid as they are in China now. Changes in Eastern Europe show the wisdom of using America’s limited leverage to open doors.
A Hudson Institute project to develop a blueprint for Hungary’s economic liberalization, being conducted with the support of the formerly Communist government and the two main democratic opposition parties, points up this lesson.
In the past decade, the United States used its diplomatic weight in Hungary to promote democratization and free-market economics even while facilitating U.S. business joint ventures under the aegis of the Communist government. This has given us, other Westerners, and – most important – the democratic groups now coming to power in Hungary, a base of experience on which to build.
In Hungary and elsewhere, Western trade relationships also tend to promote democracy by exposing the country to Western political as well as economic ideas. A Western presence means that a whole new entrepreneurial and managerial class can be stimulated even in a society that has been ruthlessly proletarianized.
True, some of the new commercial agents may be children of the old guard, who have had access to the best education and travel opportunities. But, unfair as that advantage may be, it can help to soften the old regime’s resistance to reform.
It contributed to an environment in Hungary, for example, in which top Communists relinquished power peacefully, even keeping their pensions. Contrast this pattern with hard-line, economically isolated Romania, where bloody revolution was required to institute change.
Do we really suppose that this lesson lacks relevance to China? Over the past 15 years, Western tourists, teachers and businessmen contributed to a new popular understanding of the real world outside China. The students who led the democracy marches were often those who had been exposed to the West.
The old comrades who advanced, or at least tolerated, liberalization until last year are filled with fear now, realizing that these youth are still around and beginning to occupy positions in manufacturing, trade and technology, from which they eventually must be heard again. As in Hungary and elsewhere, many of them also are the disaffected children of the party elite.
It is important that the Northwest response to the Chinese trade initiative be one of diplomatic formality rather than effusive warmth. We must continue to make clear our displeasure over Tiananmen Square and to protect Chinese students in the United States. We should advise the Chinese to expect probing questions in Seattle about human rights.
But we will help nobody by fending off a trade mission from the PRC. We should welcome it politely.
China is an old country, used to looking far ahead as well as into the past. We could use a bit of that perspective, too, rather than expecting improvements that conform to the “developing news story” pace we have come to expect in the media lately.
Democratic reform could happen suddenly in China, but more likely it will come in the pattern of “two steps forward and one step back.” Yet it will come, and we should want it to come peacefully. The people with whom we trade may be among those who make it happen.