THE Clinton administration wants to end a yearly Washington drama: the contentious debate about whether China should be deprived of United States trade benefits because of the way Beijing abuses the human rights of its citizens.
This linkage, established in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, has become outdated as US-Chinese economic ties strengthen, according to officials. Refusing China its yearly renewal of most favored nation (MFN) trade status would hurt the US as much as China, they say.
``I think there's an overwhelming view in the Congress, as there is in the executive branch, that it would be much preferable to have a broader foundation for our relations and not have so much weight put on this annual debate,'' said Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord in a speech to US businessmen on Tuesday.
More traditional diplomatic means, such as high-level protest notes or withdrawal of support for loans from international monetary organizations, might be used instead to influence Chinese behavior.
This softer tone in talking about China marks a significant shift since President Clinton took office. During the campaign, candidate Clinton hit President Bush hard for continuing to do business with Chinese hard-liners who would kill hundreds of their own protesting students. Last May, Mr. Clinton signed an executive order listing seven precise steps on human rights that China had to take to obtain MFN renewal this June.
Only two weeks ago, Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled to Beijing to deliver the message that human rights improvements are necessary if MFN is to be renewed this year. He ran into a buzz saw of criticism - from both Chinese officials and US business executives in Beijing, who insisted that trade, in fact, is the best way to open up China's political system.
The administration may well have decided to emphasize the carrot of broader relations and an end to annual MFN debates after the stick of Mr. Christopher's visit failed to produce results.
But whatever the administration's intent, it is still stuck with the implications of Clinton's own executive order: If seven human rights conditions are not met by June 3, Chinese MFN must be revoked.
Few analysts in Washington believe it will come to that. Most think a combination of grudging Chinese moves on such things as exports of prison-made products, combined with US redefinition of its own criteria, will result in MFN renewal.
``The alternative is so drastic,'' notes Wendell Wilkie II, a visiting fellow analyzing China at the American Enterprise Institute. ``Once MFN is withdrawn it can take years to get it back.''
One alternative might be selective withdrawal of MFN. This approach - similar to that contained in congressional legislation that drew significant support last year - would call for ending favored-trade status only for selected, state-run industries. China's vibrant private sector would retain its current level of access to US markets.
Assistant Secretary of State Lord said that ``in principle, it's a good theory, and one should be looking at it.'' But he added that, in practice, it might be hard to distinguish between private and state-owned Chinese businesses.
Not everyone in Washington is now in favor of toning down the annual MFN debate. A vocal group in Congress continues to press the issue of China's continued arrest of dissidents and other human rights abuses.
US Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, a leader of this group, recently complained of a ``lack of commitment'' by China to human rights and urged a continued tough line.