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China: Doubts Cast On Trade Status With U.S.

Washington, 3 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The White House says U.S. President Bill Clinton will request a renewal of normal trade ties with China today, but the president is also likely to face a contentious battle with the U.S. Congress where his request must be approved.

The battle between the U.S. president and Congress over China's most favored nation (MFN) trade status has taken place every year since the Chinese government suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing several hundred students and their supporters.

Despite its name, MFN status only means that a nation may export goods to the United States under the lowest possible tariffs. Almost every country that routinely trades with the U.S. has permanent MFN status. Because of its human rights record however, the U.S. Congress requires the president to annually certify to the Congress that China is meeting its international human rights obligations.

This same annual certification process was also required for most of the communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the Soviet Union, during the Cold War.

This year's debate on China's trade status is expected to be especially rancorous because of congressional concerns about Chinese weapons sales abroad, alleged religious persecution and other human rights violations, charges that China tried to influence the 1996 presidential election through illegal donations to President Clinton's Democratic Party, and because of escalating nuclear tensions in Asia.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who has supported an extension of China's MFN status in the past, told reporters he is now undecided on how he will vote. Lott said China's alleged transfer of sensitive technology to other countries, including Iran, and reports that campaign funds to Democratic Party accounts came from a Chinese military official combined "to raise a lot of very serious questions."

But White House spokesman Mike McCurry says the president intended to make a "strong case" for continuing normal trade relations with China.

Congress will have 30 days to review the president's one-year request for an extension of China's MFN status. The vote is expected to be close.

On Tuesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao called upon the U.S. Congress to permanently grant the MFN status, saying that yearly congressional reviews only hampered relations between the two nations.

Said Zhu: "We hope the U.S. government and Congress will, acting from the big picture of Sino-U.S. relations, end its impractical practice of reviewing China's Most Favored Nation status every year."

Experts say if Congress were to reject China's MFN status, it could prove to be a serious embarrassment to President Clinton, who is scheduled to visit China later this month.

Some members of Congress are openly urging the president to postpone or cancel his trip altogether. But White House officials insist the president's visit to China will go on as scheduled.