Background on China

‘One China’ Policy

The US, the ROC, and the PRC agreed in 1972 to the ‘One China’ policy, under which all parties abide by the fiction that China is one country currently under two governments but awaiting eventual reunification.

China is formally known as ‘The People’s Republic of China’, or ‘PRC.’ The PRC is home to nearly a billion and a half people, over 20% of the world’s population. The PRC has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party since 1949.

Taiwan is known as ‘The Republic of China’ or ‘ROC.’ Taiwan is an island off the coast of the PRC, and has a democratically elected government. Taiwan is home to 21 million people, but its economy is comparable in size to the PRC. Taiwan split from the PRC during the Communist Revolution, when the former government was driven off the mainland by the Communists.

The US has promised to defend Taiwan against an invasion from China. China has promised to invade if Taiwan declares independence, most recently in July 1999 when Taiwan's President declared the ‘One China’ policy a fiction.

The current US policy is called ‘strategic ambiguity’: we are intentionally unclear on what would provoke US intervention, so that neither China nor Taiwan will act rashly. President Bush removed some of the ambiguity in April 2001, by declarnig that the US would unambiguously defend Taiwan with military force in the case of a Chinese invasion.

The Cox Report

A House of Representatives Committee chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox released a National Security report in May 1999 known as the ‘Cox Report.’ The report detailed how the Chinese government spied on US nuclear facilities over the last two decades and as a result was able to improve their nuclear capabilities. A secret version of the report was released to President Clinton in January 1999.

The candidates’ views on the Cox Report focus on what should be done to prevent further Chinese spying, and on what the government should do about past Chinese spying.


‘MFN’ means that China is treated in our trade relations in the same manner as we treat our ‘Most Favored Nations’ as trading partners. Granting China MFN status means that we have open trade with them.

Congress reviews MFN status annually to decide if China should be granted MFN status for the next year. Granting MFN status in recent years has been tied to the improvement of China’s human rights record. Talks are held between the US and the PRC to decide which human rights violations will be addressed, and then MFN status is granted.

The term ‘MFN’ has been replaced this year by ‘Normal Trading Relations’, abbreviated ‘NTR’, which means the same thing.

The US House of Representatives voted in May 2000 to grant China ‘Permanent NTR’ status, ending the annual debate.


The World Trade Organization is the international agency which defines the rules of global trade between nations. Its purpose is to ensure free trade. Its 135 member nations, including the US and most other large economies, agree to keep import tariffs below specified levels when applied to other WTO members.

China is seeking membership in the WTO because that would ensure China of free trade with other WTO members. If granted WTO membership, China would no longer be subject to its annual MFN review. But China would also have to abide by the WTO trade rules themselves, which would mean lowering their import tariffs against US goods.

The Senate overwhelmingly (83-15) voted for PNTR for China in September 2000 and President Clinton signed it into law. This law included the US's agreement for China's entry into the WTO.

China Buzzwords

Related issues:

Free Trade.
Foreign Policy.

Background documents:

MFN Status: 1998 determination.
Cox Report: full text.
Response to Cox Report: Clinton’s official reply.
The WTO: official news.

Click here for The Forum discussion on China.
Click here for policy papers on China.
Other candidates on China: Background on other issues:
Carol Moseley Braun
George W. Bush
Dick Cheney
Wesley Clark
Howard Dean
John Edwards
Dick Gephardt
Bob Graham
John Kerry
Dennis Kucinich
Joe Lieberman
Al Sharpton

Past & Future Candidates:
Pat Buchanan
Bill Clinton
Hillary Clinton
Elizabeth Dole
Al Gore
John McCain
Ralph Nader
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