Frame Game

Spinning China

This week, Congress will vote on whether to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China. If approved, PNTR will liberate China from the annual congressional debate over its trade status. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is running a radio ad in favor of PNTR, while the AFL-CIO is airing a TV ad against it. (To hear the Chamber of Commerce ad, click here. To read the text of both ads, click here.) The two ads compete to define the issue in five ways.

1. Future vs. past. The Chamber of Commerce ad uses the present tense (PNTR “makes China play by the same rules,” “strengthens our national security,” and “opens the door to good paying American jobs”) to disguise the speculative character of these claims. PNTR is supposed to achieve these goals. Does history furnish any evidence that it will achieve them? The ad doesn’t say. Conversely, the AFL-CIO ad ducks the question of how U.S. rejection of PNTR would affect China. The spot’s verbs frame the issue in the past tense: “voiced … spent … was … endured.” The AFL-CIO wants you to think of PNTR as a reward for bad things China has done in the past. The Chamber of Commerce wants you to think of PNTR as an inducement for good things China will do in the future.

2. Building trust vs. earning trust. The Chamber of Commerce thinks we must have a relationship with another country in order to influence its behavior. Only by embracing China can we persuade it to “play by the same trade rules.” The AFL-CIO, however, thinks we can use the prospect of a relationship to influence China’s behavior. To preserve our leverage, we must “keep China on probation until China earns our trust.” In this respect, the dueling philosophies of trade mirror the dueling philosophies of sex: Should you offer it to get the relationship you want or withhold it to get the relationship you want?

3. Normal vs. special. Proponents of trade with China scored a big PR coup when the phrase “Most Favored Nation” was changed to “Normal Trade Relations.” Whereas MFN implied a special privilege, NTR connotes perfunctory civility. So while the Chamber of Commerce spot spells out the words “normal trade relations,” the AFL-CIO spot omits those words. Instead, the AFL-CIO twice describes PNTR as a “deal,” which suggests at least a discount bargain for China, if not a sleazy arrangement, as in “deals for special interests.” Normal trade relations don’t require your scrutiny, but a special “deal” does.

4. Open markets vs. open review process. Each side tries to simplify the debate in its favor by depicting its recommended course as the way to keep your options open. The Chamber of Commerce says PNTR would permit “free trade” and “open the door” to new jobs, whereas a rejection of PNTR would “isolate America.” If you haven’t yet figured out the whole trade debate, the safe course for now is to keep our relationship with China open. The AFL-CIO reverses this argument by defining openness in terms of the annual U.S. review of whether China deserves full trade status. “If you give China permanent trade status,” says the ad, you’ll lose the option to “talk about it once a year” and “evaluate” China’s behavior. The safe course for now is to reject PNTR and continue the annual reviews.

5. American wages vs. Chinese wages. The Chamber of Commerce wants you to think about your wallet: PNTR will be “great for American workers, businesses and farmers,” providing “more good jobs for Americans.” The AFL-CIO says Americans will “lose jobs” in the transaction, but this dispute is somewhat speculative and hard to resolve. It’s easier for the AFL-CIO to point out an evil that already exists and isn’t contradicted by the chamber’s happy talk about American jobs: China’s “brutal system of slave wages and sweat shops.” If they can’t appeal to your fear, they’ll appeal to your guilt.