China joins world trade body at last

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The Independent Online

China completed a 15-year quest yesterday to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), bringing a market of 1.3 billion people into the global trading system and changing the way Beijing does business with the world.

Ministers of the 142-strong trade body stood and applauded after approving the proposal to admit China, the world's most populous nation and until now a huge missing link in the WTO's membership.

"After 15 years of difficult negotiations, we finally came to this historic moment," China's foreign trade minister Shi Guangsheng said in a speech to fellow ministers meeting in the Gulf state of Qatar for their biennial conference.

Other countries hailed what they called a momentous step.

"I believe that as this century unfolds and people look back on this day, they will conclude that in admitting China to the WTO we took a decisive step in shaping a global economic and commercial system," the US trade representative Robert Zoellick said.

France's finance minister Laurent Fabius added: "We are talking about the WTO. Yet the 'W' without China is not the World. Now it will be."

WTO membership will open more markets for China's rapidly expanding economy but will also expose its overmanned industries to merciless foreign competition as tariffs are lowered and trade barriers gradually torn down. Tens of millions of people could be thrown out of work, risking social upheaval.

The breakthrough came as some of the world's poorest countries yesterday accused rich nations of bullying them into dropping their opposition to plans for unchecked free trade that could damage third world environments.

They claimed that they had been threatened with sanctions, such as cuts in aid payments, or offered bribes to keep them quiet.

Representatives of the poor countries were so nervous about going public with their allegations that they leaked them to the pressure groups and charities that have gathered in the Qatari capital of Doha to lobby for a better deal for them.