China Debate Intersects Religion and Trade ; US Commission on Religious Freedom Deals Another Setback to Pending Trade Bill

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A government-backed group of religious and human rights experts is recommending that Congress not approve permanent normal trade relations with China.

In its first annual report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom said it supported free trade, but that, in the case of China, Congress should wait on approving the disputed measure until "China makes substantial improvement in respect for religious freedom."

The commission also urged a harder line against the government in northern Sudan, and said Russia "has used anti-Muslim rhetoric to promote the war [in Chechnya] and to justify reported acts of brutality."

Normalizing trade relations with China is one of President Clinton's most important remaining foreign policy objectives. While it is likely to be approved in the Senate, a vote in the House, scheduled later this month, is considered too close to call.

Although the year-old nonpartisan commission is coming out strong against the administration's position, it may lack the leverage to sway one of the year's most heavily lobbied debates.

"We certainly hope [Congress] will listen to our recommendation," says Lawrence Goodrich, a spokesman for the commission.

Creating permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Beijing would assure that China's markets will be open to the US when China joins the World Trade Organization. But granting PNTR would also end Congress's annual review of China, which has been a major forum for condemning some of the country's alleged human rights abuses.

Efforts to move that forum from Congress to the United Nations have been difficult, because China is a permanent member of the Security Council.

Most prominently, the Chinese government has launched a nationwide crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement. …