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U.S.-Sino relations on track, Gore says

Vice President Al Gore on Tuesday assured Chinese Premier Li Peng that U.S.-Sino relations will not be hurt by allegations that China illegally contributed to 1996 election campaigns to influence U.S. policy, an administration official said.

Li raised the issue during bilateral talks, but Gore interrupted him and "said very directly to the prime minister that these allegations very obviously were in the air and they would be there," the official added.

Gore told Li "the issue is being investigated, but the important point was that this in no way would deflect the administration from pursuing its policy of engagement with China," said the official.

Li reiterated China's denial that it engaged in any illegal fund raising, and echoed Gore's assertion that the affair should not hinder U.S.-Sino relations, which are on relatively steady footing after years of tension.

Gore is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, and both sides are determined that his visit will pass without controversy.

Plans for the visit, which is seen as a prelude to reciprocal state trips by Chinese President Jiang Zemin and President Clinton, seemed to be progressing without a hitch until the campaign-finance spotlight focused on China.

In recent months, reports have surfaced that the FBI was investigating whether the Chinese Embassy in Washington attempted to influence U.S. politics through donations to the Democratic Party, and that six members of Congress were warned by the FBI last year that China might try to contribute to their campaigns to gain influence. The Justice Department is looking into the charges but has said little about its investigation.

Gore's message, in public and private, was that the controversy did not sour his talks. Nevertheless, he found himself in an awkward position.

During an event in the Great Hall of the People, he reviewed Chinese military personnel with Li _ the hard-liner who issued the declaration of martial law that ended in the deaths of hundreds in 1989. Li smiled, but Gore appeared uneasy as they walked past the soldiers standing at attention.

Gore's advisers stressed that the human rights issue is no longer a stumbling block. When Li and Gore met in Copenhagen in 1995, Li denounced Gore for the U.S. stance on human rights. Tuesday's atmosphere was very different.

"They discussed human rights," a Gore aide said. "But it was a conversation. And it left them . . . in a position to take up the next agenda item in a calm and equitable frame of mind."