China's World Trade Organisa-tion membership marks the end of the nation's most prolonged internal debate in recent history, and is the culmination of the widest diplomatic negotiations it has ever conducted with the outside world. 'It is difficult to overstate the importance of these developments. Taken together they constitute a defining moment for the WTO and for the international economic, political and security arrangements that will influence our world in this century and beyond,' says Mike Moore, WTO's director general. The symbolic importance of the voting in Qatar far outweighs the immediate practical consequences, which will be relatively modest. Chinese goods already have free access to the world's greatest markets - the United States and Europe - and you can now obtain goods in China made almost anywhere in world. For Chinese leaders, opening up the country to world trade has been the greatest gamble and one on which the Chinese Commu-nist Party mortgaged its future. Behind the doors, strong ideological and personal opposition to WTO membership has been voiced even by leaders as powerful as Li Peng, the number two in the party. For a generation which grew up steeped in the ideals of self-reliance and total national sovereignty, China's protracted trade negotiations have been associated with past humiliations - the Opium Wars, the Unequal Treaties, the foreign concessions, the Boxer Rebellion and the Japanese Occupation. As China's economic well-being has become more and more intertwined and dependent on the openness of its traditional enemies, Japan and the United States, domestic opponents have stressed how much more vulnerable China was becoming to foreign 'bullying'. Abroad, many critics of the Chinese Communist Party did indeed talk of using trade as a weapon to undermine the Communist Party and force it to release political prisoners and start political reforms. The annual votes in the US Congress to renew China's Most Favoured Nation status and the examination of China's human rights record, led to frequent calls for keeping China out of WTO. For China, the gamble has already paid off. The US will no longer be able to threaten China, and meanwhile Beijing has grown into one of the largest beneficiaries of the world trade system. In just 10 years, China became the world's seventh largest exporter of goods worth US$250 billion. It has racked up US$200 billion in foreign exchange reserves and overtaken Japan by running the single largest trade surplus with the US. In order to help China embrace the market economy, the US and its allies have also undertaken one of the most unusual strategic gambles in trade history. They opened their markets to Chinese goods without demanding equal access to China's domestic markets. China's WTO membership negotiations have therefore hung on the willingness of Beijing to open up its markets to the outside - a point which many US officials struggled to get across to sceptical audiences. 'This deal represents one-way market access. All those who want to accurately communicate the benefits of this deal . . . need to be very clear in communicating to the public and to Congress that this deal is simply about China opening its markets to us. It does not lower our tariffs by one bit,' Gene B. Sperling, Director of the White House's National Economic Council said in a speech last year to the Economic Strategy Institute. Or as Supachai Panitchpakdi, WTO Director-General designate put it more simply in an interview with Chinese radio recently: 'China's WTO entry provides a big pie for everyone.' China's markets will become more open than they have ever been in recent history. To get into WTO, China has had to negotiate bilateral agreements with all 140 members, requiring a massive expansion of China's contacts with the rest of the world. Yet it is still true that China's concessions have by and large been conducted directly with the US. Nobody else obtained anything of great value. The two chief negotiators, Charlene Barshefsky and Long Yongtu, fought hard and long over every word of a text covering each individual economic sector and product. China's size posed a unique problem since it neither fitted the bill as either a developing or a developed country and just who won out in this protracted haggling is unclear. Yet a determination by the Americans to pin everything down in the most explicit detail has resulted in a road map covering the next five years. Although the transition period when China has to free up its markets seems long enough, no one is quite sure what it will mean in practice. In private, most knowledgeable observers doubt whether China's entry will suddenly make investing in China more profitable or indeed that the rules are actually enforceable. 'The Chinese bureaucracy are already masters at creating new non-tariff barriers to foreigners,' as one long-term western diplomat remarked. Even after it become one of the world's richest economies, Japan too has proved expert at protectionism by erecting unassailable bureaucratic barriers. That is perhaps why WTO accession has largely presented in terms of how it would help bring about an underlying change in China's system of government. 'China's accession agreement will deepen and help to lock in market reforms - and empower those in China's leadership who want their country to move further and faster towards economic freedom,' then US President Bill Clinton argued last March. 'China's accession to WTO will help strengthen the rule of law in China and increase the likelihood that it will play by global rules.' Advocates repeatedly claimed that the WTO deal will allow for a freer flow of goods, information and eventually of people, undercutting the power of the state to control the lives of its citizens. Private enterprise will be encouraged that will eventually lead to greater political freedoms. 'The WTO requirements of transparency will help rein in the ability of the Chinese state to make arbitrary decisions over economic life,' claims Gene Sperling, one of the leading advocates of the deal. As the day approaches when China will have to begin the implement the agreements, Chinese newspapers are also increasingly touting not so much the economic benefits, which are not evident from the Chinese point of view, but benefits that will follow on from changing the way the bureaucracy functions. A radical rethinking of the way China's sprawling bureaucracy functions is already underway with departments weeding out redundant regulations, pruning redundant departments, and running training sessions. 'The government is very aware that with China's entry into WTO, the bureaucracy will have to change its functions and responsibilities,' writes Wu Jiahuang, vice-president of the China WTO Research Institute. 'The working style of the government will also change. We need a smaller government with fewer staff and higher productivity. We don't need a big bureaucracy anymore,' he says the Nanfang Zhoumou newspaper. The new style of government, more transparent and more accountable, and with less powers to intervene and meddle in the lives of enterprises and individuals, is very much the agenda of the liberals in China. WTO is therefore seen as the back door through which some of the political reforms blocked since Tiananmen can be pushed through in the name of making China fit in the international standards of behaviour laid out in WTO. This too is something of a gamble. WTO accession will mean opening up new areas to competition and there will be social costs. WTO membership will mean many jobs will disappear not just from the bureaucracy but in a range of sectors from farming to banking, all in the name of raising economic efficiency. China has left the hardest reforms to last and the most unmanageable industries will now be thrown open to competition. Just what the popular reaction will be and how the government will handle any opposition remains to be seen. Many fear that not enough has been done to prepare the country. The historical context is quite different from the past. WTO entry is being presented as victory in the face of opposition from the US super power and a triumph of Chinese diplomacy. Unlike the 19th century, this is a Chinese government which is voluntarily embracing opening up its domestic markets rather being forced to do so by gunboats.