The Coupling of Green Cards and MFN for China

         San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1994

                    Norman Matloff

Each year, Rep. Nancy Pelosi writes a bill that would deny Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status to China if that country makes insufficient progress in human rights.

The San Francisco Democrat has characterized the debate over these bills as "ideals versus deals."

Pelosi might consider instead her own deals.

She and others in Congress actually coerced Chinese students in the United States into supporting her on the MFN issue. She promised the students U.S. immigrant status in return for backing her China-trade bills.

In polls, these students have repeatedly shown that they oppose Pelosi's MFN bills and support decoupling MFN from the human-rights issue.

They agree with former President George Bush's view that revoking China's normal trade status would hurt ordinary Chinese citizens, would weaken the pro-reform faction in the Chinese government and so on.

Pelosi and others in Congress realized that if the students' opposition to her MFN bills were to become widely known, the case for those bills would be greatly weakened. But these key Congressional players had leverage they could apply on the students.

Zhao Haiching, who as president of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars worked closely with Pelosi, explained the nature of this leverage in a July 1991 article in the popular North American Chinese-langauge newspaper Sing Tao Daily.

Zhao first noted that many in Congress were upset about lack of student support on MFN. He then dropped a bombshell: If the students did not endorse Pelosi's MFN bills, Congress would probably not enact another Pelosi bill, the Chinese Student Protection Act. Introduced in 1992, it would grant permanent resident status---namely "green cards," which are treasured throughout Asia, the dream of any foreign student in the United States---to tens of thousands of Chinese students who had been in the United States during the 1989 protests in Beijing.

In 1992, after meeting with Pelosi, Zhao put out a computer message reporting that Pelosi had once again reminded Zhao of the connection she expected the students to make between the two bills. "She reiterated....very bluntly, `You cannot argue against the MFN bill and only want the Chinese Student Protection Act.'"

The Sing Tao Daily article noted that many students resented insistence by Congress on such a quid pro quo. Similar complaints were made on the student computer network, such as the charge by one student that Zhao had "hijacked" the MFN issue by linking it to the green-card bill.

Yet Pelosi had the students over a barrel. Justification for the green-card bill was tenuous at best.

Even Sidney Jones, executive director of the human-rights group Asia Watch, characterized the legislation as unnecessary. She noted that the vast majority of students could safely return home to China, and that the few exceptions could use regular political asylum channels.

(In a wry postscript, the student organization, strapped for cash, is running a promotion for cheap flights to China.)

Thus, the student organization's officials, swallowing hard, did agree to the deal. They have subsequently expressed consistent support for Pelosi's MFN bills, a recent example being their testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 24.

In fact, the student officials' zeal in keeping their end of the MFN-for-green-cards bargain has been so great that they not only promote the impression that the Chinese students support the MFN bills, but even claim that these bills represent the "popular demand" of people in China.

This latter claim is, of course, just as false as the former. Even Orville Schell, the prominent China analyst and human-rights activist, concedes that most ordinary Chinese citizens oppose placing conditions on MFN.

This can also be seen in the results last year of a Sing Tao Daily poll of Bay Area Chinese immigrants. Among respondents who had emigrated from China, 83 percent indicated opposition to Pelosi's MFN bills. (Similar results held for the other respondents as well.)

Pelosi, who has Congress convinced that her Chinese American constituents support her on MFN, dismissed the poll respondents as consisting only of "those merchants" (who want to do business with China).

This is an egregious insult to the nonmerchant majority who simply wanted people in China to prosper. As expressed by one respondent (a former Voice of America radio announcer), "Most of us have relatives in China. Why would we support a bill which would hurt our own relatives economically?''

In urging China to democratize, we Americans ought to start practicing what we preach. To use coercion and disinformation to pass legislation promoting democracy is a shameful irony inneed.

Norman Matloff, who teaches at UC-Davis, has worked closely with many Chinese students. He speaks Chinese and has been immersed in the Chinese immigrant community for 20 years.