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Al grins, but does he bear it?

Somewhere down in the deepest, most secret recesses of his psyche, Al Gore has to be wondering whether it was really such a hot idea hitching his wagon to Bill Clinton's presidency.

For a while there, being vice president of the United States must have seemed like a pretty good deal. There was, after all, the Veep's swell mansion on the edge of Georgetown. And whenever he and Tipper got a notion to go someplace, government jets and cushy black limousines were only a phone call away. They never had to worry about parking the car, checking their luggage, getting a decent meal or even finding a good movie. The movies came to them and life was sweet.

Then Bill Clinton got the idea that his deputy needed what people around here call "a sharper profile." This was important if Gore intended to move into the White House himself some day and by doing so lock out the dreaded Republicans for another presidential term or two.

So Clinton appointed Gore solicitor-in-chief _ the man in charge of shaking down fat-cat political contributors so thoroughly there was nothing left over for anybody else. And by all accounts, he was very thorough at it, even to the point of using taxpayer-supplied telephones in his vice presidential office _ a technical no-no, but hey, everybody in Washington did stuff like that.

Then the boss gave Gore an even tougher job _ traveling to Beijing and making nice with the likes of Li Peng, prime minister of China and the man most responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 in which hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators were gunned down.

This, apparently, was almost too much even for Al Gore. At least shaking down fat cats could be done from the privacy of his office. It wasn't so humiliating. But when you clicked champagne glasses with Li Peng, as Gore did the other day, it had to be done out in public, in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, for all the world to see.

Somehow, our stout-hearted vice president, despite visible misgivings and the presence of TV and newspaper photographers, managed to pull it off. He exchanged champagne toasts with the man we knew only a few years back as "The Butcher of Beijing."

The proximate cause of Gore's social fortitude was a signing ceremony for contracts worth $2-billion between China and two of America's most prestigious companies, General Motors and Boeing. With that kind of money on the table, it seems that politicians as well as business executives can stomach a lot.

But the vice president had another reason for exchanging pleasantries with Li Peng. By going over as the highest ranking American to visit China since the Tiananmen massacre, Gore was also hoping to sweeten the atmosphere for a summit conference scheduled later this year between Clinton and China's president, Jiang Zemin. If the No.

2s from each country can nail down $2-billion in business, imagine what the No.

1s will be able to do.

Even so, Gore must have had a moment there in The Great Hall of the People, champagne glass in hand and facing a smiling Li Peng, when he felt something akin to Adm. James Stockdale. You remember Stockdale, the Navy war hero who was Ross Perot's running mate in 1992 and who famously asked a vice presidential debate audience, "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Gore may have been asking himself the same things and, who knows, maybe even wondering if America's romance with China in recent years has produced anything close to the mutual benefits we expected.

Has our policy of "engaging" Beijing through ever-larger business deals really opened up its political system as Clinton and other friends of China promised?

Almost three years after Clinton "de-linked" human rights from the way we trade with China, has there been any of measurable progress in human rights as he predicted?

And while we're at it, what about this expanded trade with China? Is it fair and reciprocal, and if so how do you explain that Beijing's trade surplus against the United States is now more than $40-billion a year, even higher than Japan's?

The reason Washington puts up with this kind of lop-sided trading is China's domestic market of 1.2-billion people, a market so vast and with so much theoretical potential that all of us will be able to benefit from its expansion. But how much trade do we actually do with China and how fast is that trade really expanding?

Right now, China's supposedly vast market accounts for only 1.8 percent or so of America's total exports. That's less than we export to Taiwan or even Singapore. As for direct U.S. business investment, China had $1.9-billion at the last official count, not a whole lot more than U.S. business invests in the Dominican Republic and not nearly as much as our investments in Colombia.

And even if U.S. business with China expands at 10 percent a year as some economists predict, it will be years, maybe even decades, before it becomes a dominant factor in our trading.

But Al Gore probably wasn't thinking about such statistics as he traded toasts with Li Peng, the man who ordered in guns against the pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Most probably, he was worrying about all those pictures being taken of the event, pictures that might come back to haunt him in the presidential campaigning of 2000. Why did Bill Clinton send him here and was it smart of him to come?

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