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Businessmen around the world continue to be fascinated with the prospect of making a fortune doing business with China.

The May 27 U.S. House of Representatives endorsement of the China trade bill, to be followed by passage of the U.S. Senate version, will perpetuate the imagined potential of selling to “1 billion Chinese.”

“Imagined” and “potential” are the operative words, since very few foreigners have made old-fashioned “profits” in China.

In 1937, author Carl Crow wrote a book titled “400 Million Customers” (World Press) that continued the “oil for the lamps of China” myth that had captivated traders for centuries. As China grew, so did the market, as Australian Ross Terrill made plain in his 1971 book, “800,000,000: The Real China” (Little, Brown).

Jay and Linda Mathews, first of the now popular husband-and-wife foreign-correspondent duos, in 1983 published “One Billion: A China Chronicle” (Random House). By the time William H. Overholt joined the chorus in 1993 with his book “The Rise of China” (W.W. Norton), there were about 1.2 billion Chinese.

A confession is in order: I played on the same syndrome in a book I coauthored in 1974, “The Future of the China Market: Prospects for Sino-American Trade” (American Enterprise Institute-Hoover Institution). There was a certain euphoria after President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, and curiosity about doing business there was rife in U.S. firms.

The book was criticized by some for being overly optimistic on the future of trade between the United States and China. As it turned out, the predictions in the book were too conservative.

In 1973, U.S. exports to China were worth $689.1 million and imports from China were worth $63.9 million. By 1998, China had become the fourth-largest trading partner of the U.S., selling $71.1 billion worth of goods and buying $14.2 billion.

But there is far more at stake here than just trade. “The Future of the China Market” concluded: “To take advantage of the changes, challenges and opportunities that lie within the trade and developmental finance areas of the coming enlarged mutual relationship between Chinese and Americans, we must prepare ourselves much better than we have been doing, both in a bilateral sense and in our awareness of a changing world situation.

“There is much to be learned and understood about China, and there is a potential for interaction between the U.S. and China tomorrow that is scarcely imagined anywhere today.”

The biggest issue between Washington and Beijing is Taiwan — as Chinese President Jiang Zemin reminded U.S. President Bill Clinton in a telephone call last weekend.

But the feeling in Taiwan, at least, is that membership for both Beijing and Taipei in the World Trade Organization will ease mutual tensions and perhaps allow for some semantic, if not political, accommodation.

The admission of first Beijing and then Taipei into the WTO will greatly improve the relationship between the two adversaries, Taiwan’s former Foreign Minister Chen Chien-jen said in a recent interview.

Chen made the remarks on the eve of the March 18 Taiwan presidential election. After Chen Shui-bian was elected president and inaugurated May 20, he asked Chen Chien-jen to become Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Washington.

The former foreign minister said there was no doubt about Taiwan following China’s tracks into the WTO once Beijing has completed pending agreements with a final handful of countries.

“There is no question about Taiwan’s admission,” Chen Chien-jen said. “We have passed the requirements and signed 26 agreements, all except with Hong Kong. And Hong Kong is part of China, so that is pending.”

He might have added that the U.S. and Japan exerted pressure on China to agree unequivocally to Taiwan’s entry into the WTO immediately after its own. Taiwan agreed to face reality and wait in line, even to accept a name change, despite the fact that its own economy measures up to world criteria better than China’s does.

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