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Clinton's press for trade puzzling

Just as the battle over permanent trade relations with China was moving toward a climax, just when House members were having their arms broken _ and their loyalties torn between labor and business, between human rights and trade _ just as Cabinet members swarmed over the Hill preaching the gospel of "de-linkage," the Chinese showed again last week how unhelpful they can be. A state-run Chinese newspaper printed an article threatening war with Taiwan.

It made not the slightest difference. Friends and foes of "Permanent Normal Trade Relations" shrugged it off as routine Chinese saber rattling.

The truth is that nothing makes any difference. The Chinese violate human rights, nonproliferation standards, and even trade agreements they have already signed. But the president wants PNTR and has made linkage to any other consideration politically incorrect. He has cast the argument as a stark and monumental clash between free-traders and isolationists. The administration's line is that, despite glaring evidence to the contrary, there is no greater agent for human liberty than the Internet.

House Minority Whip David Bonior, D-Mich., and his allies stage daily protests by clergy, veterans and Chinese dissidents. Democrats are divided and suffering. And they are puzzled. Why would a Democratic president, in a campaign year, be causing such political havoc, riling up a traditional Democratic constituency _ labor?

Says Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Capitol Hill's first lady of human rights, "This is destructive of our ability to win back the House."

Says Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.: "The shame of this is the way the president put it _ so that anyone opposed is a Luddite. He doesn't have to do this. We could be against PNTR and still have trade with China. We would keep the leverage of an annual review."

The annual review of China's standing as a most-favored-nation trading partner has always been a big laugh. The president automatically certifies progress in human rights and nonproliferation, and the Congress goes along.

Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, a Democrat who is regarded as a decent person and a sincere advocate of human rights, has offered a remedy for guilty consciences, for those in Congress who feel bad about putting trade over prison labor and religious persecution. Levin and a moderate Republican, Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska, have written a bill to create a Helsinki-type commission on human rights in China. It would be "activist," he says _ an executive-legislative body with a full-time staff and a mandate to monitor and follow up.

The State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issues annual reports that are perhaps the most admired documents produced by Foggy Bottom. The last report, which won approval of the human rights community, documented unsparingly the situation in Beijing. Human rights in China are bad, the report said, and getting worse. China, of course, pays no attention.

The Republicans aren't yet sure if they will include the Levin-Bereuter palliative in the China trade bill. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., calls it "NyQuil for those who are tossing and turning."

Rep. Martin Meehan, a Democrat who is another member of the usually harmonious and united Massachusetts delegation, has made up his mind to vote yes on the trade bill. "I see it as an economic matter," he said. "Massachusetts will get the advantage of increased trade in high-tech exports."

The U.S. trade deficit with China now stands at $70 billion. The administration has been assuring Congress that "it definitely will not get any worse" if the trade bill passes.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., is voting no. She thinks the European Union has fielded much tougher negotiators with China than we have.

"It shows," she says, "that we learned nothing from NAFTA. Mexico didn't raise its standard of living. The environment has not been cleaned up."

But Bill Clinton is going before the country to insist on PNTR with China. Democrats grumble that he wants to make Wall Street happy, craves the approval of the rich, thinks only of himself.

The big mystery is why he thinks this values-free enterprise is the stuff of Rushmore.

+ Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist. +

Universal Press Syndicate

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