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U.S.-China relations near rock bottom

Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in China's prison-labor camps and then devoted his life to exposing them, has become the focus of what may be the worst deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations since they were formally established in 1979.

Wu, 58, has been detained by Chinese authorities in a remote border town in Xinjiang Province since June 19, when he tried to enter China from Kazakhstan. He has returned to China several times to investigate prison labor since emigrating in 1985 and becoming an American citizen.

U.S. officials see the detention as the latest of several Chinese moves to retaliate for President Clinton's decision to grant a visa for the first time to Taiwanese President Lee Teng Hui, who attended a reunion in June at his alma mater, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

China, which opposes Taiwan's efforts to gain international acceptance, also has withdrawn its ambassador to Washington and blocked high-level contacts with American officials.

"The formal and official aspect of the relationship is at its lowest state certainly since before 1979," when President Carter opened formal diplomatic relations with China, said Douglass Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy Center in Washington.

In a symbolic show of pique, he notes, China is sending only a vice minister to the annual Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing _ the lowest-level representation in years.

China's bitter response to the Lee visa is just one source of growing friction between the United States and Beijing. Others:

Missile exports: China is suspected of continuing to violate the Missile Technology Control Regime by supplying M-11 missile parts to Pakistan. Worse, U.S. intelligence has obtained information that China sold Iran guidance systems to make its Scud missiles more accurate.

Under U.S. law, the latter violation could trigger American trade sanctions, hurting the economies of both countries.

Nuclear weapons: China has flouted a worldwide moratorium on nuclear-weapons tests, although Beijing officials say they still intend to join a test-ban treaty.

Expansionism: China has broadened its claims to the South China Sea and the mineral-rich Spratly Islands, causing growing nervousness among its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines, and drawing warnings from Washington not to interfere with sea traffic.

Human rights: In what some analysts see as a deliberate slap at Clinton, China has re-arrested some of the same pro-democracy activists who had been released before Clinton's decision last year to maintain China's favorable trade status.

Beneath these strains is a growing mutual suspicion that touches on China's role in the world, the nature of its regime and political turmoil in both countries.

This is where Wu comes in.

Born into a Westernized, upper-middle-class household as the son of a Shanghai banker, Wu ran afoul of Communist Party ideologues during his university years and was labeled a counterrevolutionary rightist.

Sent into penal labor, "I learned that the only way to survive was to become inhuman _ not to think, not to feel," he wrote in an article published last year. "I was repeatedly tortured and nearly died from starvation and exposure to freezing temperatures."

The State Department accused China of violating an agreement by refusing U.S. diplomats access to Wu, and called for his release.