It's been 25 years since students in China defied authorities and gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to call for democratic reform of their government. They were violently removed when government soldiers overran encampments and fired into unarmed crowds. The ensuing death toll remains unconfirmed, but even the lowest estimates put it in the hundreds.
Beijing has called the gathering in Tiananmen a "counter-revolutionary riot." But recently, talk on the subject has been quashed. Of late, dissidents and activists have been rounded up. Journalists have been warned away from the square. Even tourists who flash the V for victory sign have been detained.
China's response to dissent from its citizens is brutal. And in the past, the United States had a tool to try to moderate some of this behavior: conditioning trade benefits on progress in human rights issues. Our political leaders seldom used this tool, however, and lured instead by China's consumer market and cheap labor, discarded any real recourse 14 years ago.
It was suggested that opening China's consumer market would beget democracy and human rights. Others predicted that the internet would serve to foster a more open society. They were all absolutely wrong, and the digital world has in fact become a tool of internal oppression in China as well as the means for state-sponsored cyber hacking, particularly against U.S. firms.
Shame on China's regime. But shame on us, as well.
Why? Because the United States laid significant groundwork for the formation of the modern, post-Tiananmen Chinese police state. And our culpability can be spelled out in four letters: PNTR.
In late 2000, 11 years after the Tiananmen protests, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president granted to China "Permanent Normalized Trade Relations" (PNTR), a necessary step in order for China to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). That move sent a signal that the threat of tariffs on China's exports would now be a thing of the past.
Quite a few American businesses interpreted that certainty as a green light to offshore millions of middle-class manufacturing jobs. Research has suggested that more than half of domestic manufacturing job loss since 2001 can be tied to the China PNTR decision.
So, instead of economic and democratic reform in China leading to a greater market for U.S. exports, we've simply built up a massive economic competitor. State-owned enterprises dominate the Chinese economy, and our bilateral trade deficit with Beijing grows each year, ballooning to a record $318 billion in 2013. That vastly lopsided trade balance means America is effectively funding China's tools of oppression.
If we want to see real, serious democratic reform from Beijing (not to mention a wholesale improvement for the American economy), we should get tough on trade with China. And that means action from the Congress and the Administration when China illegally subsidizes its otherwise uncompetitive industries and manipulates its currency to artificially cheapen exports.
Can democracy and human rights flourish in China? Apparently not the way our nation's leaders -- including Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama -- have been approaching the issue since 2001. Handing over hundreds of billions of dollars through a trade deficit to a repressive regime has not fostered greater freedoms for China's population.
It's time to get smart and focus on the one democracy we can save. Supporting American manufacturing -- and the good, middle class jobs it maintains -- while pushing back against China's gross violations of trade agreements, may be the best way to show Beijing that it's time to really open its own market and move toward a more democratic society.