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Religious Right Enters Fray Over Trade Status for China

Commerce: Conservatives push the U.S. to stress freedoms over profits--and drop privileges for Beijing.

May 02, 1997|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Clinton and Congress are beginning their annual struggle over renewal of trade privileges for China, and the outcome this year could hinge on an entirely new question: Should Americans be supplying the Chinese with Boeing 737s or Bibles?

That is what lobbyists for the religious right are asking as they take part in the debate for the first time. Already their participation is changing the dynamics of U.S. policy toward China.

In previous years, Boeing and other major American companies that do business in China have argued persuasively that the government's China trade policy should promote maximum U.S. sales to the vast Chinese market. And Congress has responded by accepting Clinton's recommendations for one-year extensions of China's status as a most-favored nation, which lets Chinese goods enter the United States with the same low tariffs enjoyed by most other nations.

This year, however, conservative Christian groups, working in an unlikely coalition with liberal-leaning labor unions and human rights groups, are trying to convince pro-business Republicans that U.S. policy toward China should emphasize religious and political freedoms over profits.

"There's more to America than business deals," argued Kristi Hamrick, communications director of the Family Research Council, a Washington think tank that is leading the assault on most-favored-nation status for China by arguing that its government has systematically denied religious freedom to its people.

Using advertising depicting horror stories of religious persecution in China, the Family Research Council has given energy to a network of fundamentalist Christians across the country that seems to be having as much impact on Congress as the well-heeled lobbyists from Boeing, Motorola and other companies that do big business in China.

One such ad notes that on March 4, shortly before Vice President Al Gore made a goodwill trip to China, government security forces ransacked the Shanghai apartment of Roman Catholic Bishop Fan Zhongliang as "part of a larger campaign of terror and religious oppression throughout China."

As a result, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other leading Republicans are expressing reservations about renewal of China's most-favored-nation status, which they have supported consistently in the past. Even Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a longtime MFN supporter who represents the state where Boeing is headquartered, is among the fence sitters.

Gingrich, in an effort to bridge the widening gap between pro-business Republicans and those allied with the religious right, announced his support Wednesday for renewing MFN status for less than a year--perhaps three to six months. He said this would allow Congress time to evaluate how China intends to govern Hong Kong before voting on a longer renewal.

Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), the chief proponent of a three-month renewal, predicted that both opponents and proponents of continued MFN status for China would see a short-term extension as a way to avoid making the hard choice between promoting trade and advancing human rights in China.

Even before the Christian conservatives entered the picture, Clinton's annual campaign to win renewal of most-favored status for China faced more than the usual opposition this year. Beijing was losing support because of allegations of illegal Chinese campaign contributions to U.S. political candidates, the Chinese reclamation of Hong Kong and evidence of Chinese arms sales to Iran.

Privately, the president's advisors say they fear that when Clinton speaks out in favor of a one-year MFN renewal, some Americans will conclude that he has been influenced by hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations to his reelection campaign, which the FBI believes came to the Democratic Party indirectly from the government in Beijing.

Despite these obstacles, the president has an important advantage over his opponents on this issue because of the procedure under which the renewal of China's trade status will be decided. The law gives Clinton until June 3 to announce his decision, and Congress then has a month to vote on it.

Even if Congress rejects most-favored status for China by a majority vote, the president can simply veto the measure and--if either the House or Senate fails to override the veto by a two-thirds majority--Clinton's decision stands.

Although he has made no announcement yet, the president's intentions are already known. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that Clinton wants a one-year extension because he believes that trade with China is essential.

"If we can have a good trade relationship with China, it creates an atmosphere where it is more likely that human rights and political freedom will be respected in China," Albright declared recently.

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