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CAMBRIDGE, England — Among U.S. President Bill Clinton’s wilder statements on China were those he came up with when recommending that Congress pass the Permanent Normal Trade Relations Bill. The bill, which Congress passed last September, was a necessary precondition for the United States’ support of China’s accession to the WTO.

Even by Clinton’s standards, the language was flamboyant and exaggerated. The freer trade that China would have to engage in after accession would, he said, “unleash forces that may hasten the demise of the mainland’s one-party state.” He went on to say that, since accession would involve liberalization in the area of information technology, “in letting our high-tech companies in to bring the Internet and the information revolution to China, we will be unleashing forces that no totalitarian operation can control.” Cuban leader Fidel Castro must be wondering if he did the right thing in taking Cuba into the WTO in 1995 now that he knows that it was just a U.S. plot to throw him out of office.

One has to wonder what Clinton believed the Chinese leadership would think when they read this speech, as they assuredly would have done. Did he expect them to withdraw their application for membership of the WTO or to continue with what they were being told was an act of political suicide? Actually, they probably had a good laugh.

Take the two propositions separately. Why would WTO accession lead to a multiparty system? To do this it would have to break the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power when there is no indication that the party is seeking to divest itself of that power. In fact, the opposite is true.

The argument runs that after accession to the WTO, the Chinese economy would become increasingly globalized as more foreign companies invest in China and accelerate the devolution of power away from the center toward the provinces and the Chinese companies and sectors in which they invest. Eventually these new power bases would seek their own national voices and become the bases of opposition within the existing political system, forming nuclei around which new political parties would form.

Not so, said Dr. Heike Holbig at a conference she organized for the Hamburg-based Institute for Asian Studies in Berlin last week. In her well-argued and thought-provoking paper, Holbig took the line of reasoning less traveled and suggested that accession to the WTO might increase the CCP’s hold on power, at least in the short to middle run.

Holbig argued that the process of globalization will necessarily strengthen the power of the CCP because the need “for ‘management of globalization’ strengthens the position of the central government. Regional actors cannot provide sufficiently well the complex regulatory tasks that are required for the management of international financial transactions, of a stable currency, of technological and educational innovation, etc., which have become more and more critical factors of governance. Local and sectoral agents increasingly rely on the center to deliver these goods.”

The center will also have to exert and thus increase its power in order to eliminate the current rampant provincial protectionism that China would be committed to remove under its WTO obligations. So, Holbig argued, the tendency for the political power of the center to be reduced by the economic reforms of the last 20 years will be reversed by WTO membership, thus enhancing the power of the controlling CCP.

She also argued that simply admitting China to the WTO — and the round of international meetings that the CCP’s leaders have been engaging in during the accession process — enhances the perception of the legitimacy of party rule.

On Clinton’s second claim, that the Internet and the associated information revolution would unleash forces “that no totalitarian operation can control,” presumably forces moving the system along a more democratic trajectory, Holbig was more equivocal. On the one hand, she argued that the CCP is fully aware of the dangers of democratization inherent in the access to information that the Internet provides and that it is therefore, and with some success, “trying quite resolutely to curb attempts at articulation of social interests that might become politically effective.”

On the other hand, she argued, accession to the WTO will create a substantial demand for professional expertise in all aspects of information technology. The government’s reliance on these professionals will then “lead to a substantial empowerment of new functional elites” who will eventually want to use their power and express it in ways that will threaten the hegemony of the CCP.

I agree with Holbig’s assessment of the centralizing impact of accession to the WTO on the structure of power in China. I am not sure about her predictions of the political consequences of the speeding up of the information revolution that accession will undoubtedly entail.

She may be right, but I do not think she gives enough attention to the emergence of the virtual civil society that has come into existence in China in the chat rooms and bulletin boards of the Net, even while the CCP intensifies its repression of physical civic society.

On the other hand, she may be giving too much weight to the emergence of the professional elite engendered by the information revolution. In my experience, they have so far been happy to live with the dictatorship of the CCP, often joining in as members and advising it on the use of the new technology. I do not see this changing much in the short to medium term with which Holbig is concerned.

In the longer run, though, that segment of the group that is gaining confidence in the virtual civil society will realize that its members are not alone and do have a voice, albeit only a virtual one yet.

And as the provinces and sectoral interest groups also begin to react against the loss of power entailed in the re-centralization implied by membership of the WTO, then we may see some interesting changes in China’s political structure.

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