IT TOOK FOUR telephone calls to get through the police bugging system and reach Bao Tong, a senior adviser to reformist Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s, who served seven years in prison for opposing the 1989 crackdown. He lives under house arrest and may not be quoted by the official media. 'I was very happy to hear the news,' he said of the decision by the US Congress to extend Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to China. 'It is good for both peoples and will help the rule of law, not overnight but in the long term. Developing the economy will develop all of society. If a country is very poor, its society cannot advance.' Another 'banned' person, Dai Qing, one of China's strongest environmental activists, was equally enthusiastic. 'It is very good and hastens the end of the monopolies needed to maintain a totalitarian system. Entering the World Trade Organisation [WTO] means competition and alternatives. People dare to leave a state firm if they can get another job. Totalitarianism means a dictator and people prepared to follow him. Our first step is to get rid of this system.' Official China was delighted too at the decision which paves the way for Beijing to enter the WTO, probably this year. 'Passing PNTR is a wise decision,' said the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (MOFTEC). 'This will help the healthy and stable development of bilateral trade and economic co-operation with China on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. 'We have been working for 14 years to enter the WTO,' said MOFTEC official Liu Zuozhang, deputy director of foreign investment, at a news conference in Shanghai. 'It will not be long before we enter. Our entry is a win-win policy. Once we enter, our business environment will become more normal and transparent and in compliance with international standards.' In Guangdong, Xu Luodan, a Zhongshan University economics professor who specialises in foreign investment and trade issues in the province, disagreed with suggestions that China's WTO accession would harm local companies' interests, though she said China's agricultural, pharmaceutical and telecommunications industries would feel increased pressure from foreign competition. 'Not allowing foreign companies to enter the market does not mean that local ones will develop well,' Professor Xu said. In some cases, she said, high tariffs and the lack of foreign competition had actually retarded the development of domestic industries. 'The biggest winners will be consumers.' Expectation of WTO entry was one reason why contracted foreign investment in the whole of China during the first four months of this year rose 28 per cent to US$14.64 billion (about HK$114 billion), she said. Such rare unanimity of the Government and its opponents indicates the historic importance of the decision by Congress, a vote not only on trade and investment but on China itself and US willingness to engage with the country. A no vote would have meant a shocking defeat for President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, who had staked so much political capital on the vote, and would have handed a victory to those within the Government who oppose good relations with the West and the US in particular. It was those hardliners who were dominant after the outbreak of the Nato war against Yugoslavia a year ago, especially after its bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 7. In the backlash against the US, Mr Zhu nearly lost his job and the media questioned the benefits of WTO membership, speaking of its devastating effect on those industries that are most protected and least efficient, such as cars, machinery, petrochemicals and farming. In the autumn, Mr Zhu was able to regain the initiative and negotiate an agreement with the US on the terms of China's entry into the WTO in November, which led to yesterday's vote in Congress. A no vote would have meant not only that US firms would have been excluded from the most-favoured-nation status accorded to other foreign companies after China's entry, but a body blow to Mr Zhu and Mr Jiang who want to use WTO rules to accelerate reforms, especially of the ailing state sector where they face strong opposition. US businessmen in China who have lobbied long and hard for a yes vote were jubilant. 'This is excellent news for my company,' said Xavier Thiebaud, who runs the Guangzhou operations of Eternit, a construction materials company, and who also sits on the board of the Guangzhou American Chamber of Commerce. A team of US business representatives visited more than 100 congressional offices in Washington last month to lobby for passage. One of the keenest lobbyists was Sandra Kristoff, a senior vice-president of New York Life Insurance Company who served for 2.5 years as senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, under President Bill Clinton. In her Beijing hotel yesterday, Ms Kristoff rose at 2.30am to watch the Congress vote unfold live on television. 'The US has passed its test,' she said. 'Now the burden shifts to China. It will take a lot of heavy lifting to fulfil its part of the equation and bring its economy up to international standards. It will require political will. We will help all we can.' While PNTR is an economic winner for both sides, the picture is less clear on the question of whether it will encourage political reform, environmental issues, and human and labour rights on the mainland. For her part, Ms Kristoff said the most oppressive countries were those that were inward-looking, closed and cut off from the world. 'US companies will bring in their expertise, management, training and technology, which will prompt more openness. It will take time. It is reformers within China who wanted this bill. They know best.' Ms Dai could not agree more. 'What Chinese leaders most fear is losing face. If they lose face, they do bad things. Compared with 10 years ago, foreign politicians understand China and believe we have a future. Everyone tells jokes against President Jiang and his play-acting on foreign trips. But this vote shows that he has achieved something.' For her, WTO and PNTR mean the introduction of new technology and new freedoms for China. It is the Internet, a US invention, that has enabled Ms Dai to escape the wall of silence that the Government imposed around her. 'The party's propaganda department, so evil and so stupid, cannot defeat high technology unless they put a policeman behind every personal computer. I can get nothing published in China, but I can put articles on the Internet.'