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China West - A Breakaway Future
Still Leans on its Past

As the U.S. Congress wrangled day after day about whether to admit China into the World Trade Organization, miles of new pavement were being laid for a highway between Beijing and Shanghai.

At the same time, droves of Taiwanese business people flooded the streets of mainland cities, apparently oblivious to the near war that transpired four years ago between China and its expatriate one-time province. Money has been pouring into China during the past few years at a nearly immeasurable rate, from multinational auto companies and suppliers setting up joint ventures to quiet infusions of Taiwanese investment capital.

China, say those who are participating in its rush to join the 21st Century, is a country that no longer can be ignored by anyone.

Ignoring its Past?

To Western eyes, China on the brink of tomorrow doesn't appear to be looking back as its ancient cities and traditions make room for a booming future. And for outsiders, it's become a brass ring prize for those wanting a foothold in what assuredly will become the world's most dominant economies within a decade or two.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) approval for China last year, despite heavy lobbying from opponents, won a sigh of relief from some of America's top executives who had counted on China receiving coveted Permanent Normalized Trade Relationship (PNTR) status.

Now, as that approval waits to be implemented, those same executives say they are freer to go on the offensive for business in a country that is fast-forwarding from a sort of economic dark ages towards a spot as the new jewel of the Orient.

But as western influences hammer on the door of China for admission, the centuries-old mist that shrouds what's undoubtedly the world's most enigmatic country isn't likely to disappear at any time soon.

Surface Appearances

"It's true China can change, and it has been changing. But I wouldn't underestimate the forces that resist change," said Greg Mastel, economist and author with two books to his credit about the Chinese economy.

Mastel directs the global economic policy project for the New America Foundation, a three-year-old Washington, D.C. think tank sometimes referred to as "radical central." With some 13 trips to China behind him (the latest in 1999), he personally has concluded that extending trade recognition to China is the correct way to go - but with caution.

"I supported the PNTR," said Mastel. "But I think it's going to be a very, very difficult transition. China is not a natural fit for the WTO. It will take many, many years - maybe decades."

Although WTO status is to phase down import tariffs, particularly on motor vehicles, from a high of nearly 100 percent to a more reasonable 25 percent, Mastel feels that rate still is excessively high and will keep imported goods out of the reach of most Chinese.

"There could be some imports of parts or materials, but I don't think we're going to see freighter after freighter filled with U.S. automobiles going to China," he said.

Reconciling Differences | Next Page

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