Clinton Renews MFN for China: Decision Could Face Battle on Hill

Article excerpt

President Clinton announced yesterday that he will renew China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status for another year, without linking it to improvement in Beijing's human rights record or setting other terms.

The president's announcement, while expected, sets up what could be a major confrontation with Congress over China policy.

Sentiment is growing on Capitol Hill to put conditions on MFN status because of China's failure to protect human rights, its growing trade surplus with the United States, its weapon sales, fears it will limit freedoms in Hong Kong, and reported Chinese attempts to influence last year's U.S. elections.

And there is a new factor in the struggle: Several Christian groups have joined labor and human rights advocates in opposing MFN renewal.

Mr. Clinton's announcement came two weeks before the June 3 deadline for his decision and, aides said, was designed to build support early for his policy.

Trade, the president said, "is the best way to integrate China further into the family of nations and to secure our interests and our ideals."

"I believe if we were to revoke normal trade status, it would cut off our contact with the Chinese people and undermine our influence with the Chinese government," he said.

Mr. Clinton tried to cast the issue in bipartisan terms, recalling that every president has made the same decision since 1980. And he noted that even democracy activists in Hong Kong support MFN renewal.

Hong Kong's return to China on July 1 could affect the nature and timing of congressional action, as lawmakers wait to see whether Beijing is heavy-handed in its treatment of the British colony. The president made his remarks in a hastily arranged White House speech to the Young Presidents Organizations, a business leaders group. One member of the group said he and his colleagues were informed that Mr. Clinton would address them 40 minutes beforehand.

MFN status accords Chinese exports the same low tariffs given to most U.S. trading partners.

Under the law, Congress has 90 days after June 3 to pass judgment on Mr. Clinton's action. If it passes a resolution of disapproval, he can veto that, and lawmakers can try to overturn his veto.

Tomorrow morning, Reps. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, plan to hold a news conference with other MFN opponents. They include representatives of the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Conference and the Family Research Council.

"We believe the pro-MFN side peaked today, with the announcement," Family Research Council President Gary Bauer said.

Mr. Bauer, who said his and related groups have waged a grass-roots lobbying effort on the issue for two months, predicted the House will vote against Mr. Clinton, "and then all bets are off."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich issued a statement decrying the renewal of MFN status without conditions. "This president had been virtually absent without leadership on issues of religious tolerance, human rights and democratic freedoms," the Georgia Republican said. "The only policy consideration driving this administration seems to be a single-minded devotion to economic growth alone. …