China and the U.S.: 1999 vs. 2009

The National Interest, May 24, 2019

In November 1999, the United States and China signed a trade pact that paved the way to China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. To secure U.S. support for its WTO accession, China agreed to open its markets and cut tariffs an average of 23 percent.

Some twenty years later today, the United States and China are engaged in a raging trade war.

In 1999, there was notable euphoria on both sides about the possibility of a great future of bilateral cooperation.

Today, the euphoria is gone. President Donald Trump, the chief advocate of the trade war, has tweeted that “China has taken so advantage of the U.S. for so many years,” and that China has been “stealing from American businesses, hurting [its] workers, and @realDonaldTrump is right to fight back!”

The year 1999 was a different era in China—culturally, socially and politically. China watchers have noted that the atmosphere was more open, and more politically tolerant. Under then President Jiang Zemin, there was a certain degree of political space for intellectuals and activists. In the intervening years, that space was curtailed by Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, and then curtailed even further by current Chinese president Xi Jinping.

In Washington today, policymakers on both sides of the aisle—along with pundits who wish to sound smart on China—have been expressing their disappointment that China has not evolved to become more politically liberal as it has amassed economic might.

Of course, China never said it was going to democratize, and the Chinese Communist Party never promised to relinquish political power.


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