The visit of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to the United States over the past week could hardly have come at a less propitious time.
Bombs are falling on Serbia, and the Chinese have made clear their opposition to NATO's efforts to militarily force a settlement in the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Even more to the point, China's critics in Congress have made clear their distaste for cozying up to a country suspected of pirating US nuclear secrets - and whose military-industrial barons probably orchestrated illegal campaign contributions during the 1996 US presidential campaign.
On top of that, this year's 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown (June 4) is on people's minds. Beijing's recent jailing of democracy advocates who wanted to form a new political party assured that human rights would be front and center during the visit.
None of that, however, fazed the indomitable - and very single-minded - Mr. Zhu. While China's No. 3 official gave little ground on Tibet, Taiwan, and human rights, he showed himself capable of thoughtfully discussing these touchy issues without falling back on the "party line." He even admitted disappointment that China hasn't moved further on rights.
But most of all he zeroed in on his No. 1 priority: Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization. US approval of that is critical. Zhu, a tireless campaigner for economic reform in China ever since his days as mayor of Shanghai, didn't get the immediate agreement he was after. But that didn't throw him. After leaving Washington to visit other US cities, he simply put on his political-lobbyist hat and sought business support for the WTO deal wherever he went.
It paid off. Wednesday the Clinton administration announced it will reopen WTO talks with China before month's end, and officials are talking about a conclusion to the deal by year's end. That's good news, because China's membership in the global free-trade community will do more than boost US sales to the world's most populous nation. It will also build diplomatic relationships that can help resolve future crises, and it will spur continued economic - and perhaps political - liberalization within China.
The Chinese have already taken notable steps toward freer trade. They've agreed to permit substantial foreign investment in their telecommunications industry; they will allow foreign firms to sell directly to Chinese consumers; they have expanded from two to 24 the number of cities where foreign insurance companies can do business; and they have pledged to dismantle barriers to American agricultural products.
The barriers in Congress - and those perceived by Clinton administration political strategists - still loom. While many congressional free-traders want a WTO deal, protectionist sentiment is strong, and so is resentment over the nuclear secrets controversy.
Those aren't minor objections. But they should not block a major step forward. Zhu did his part, exhibiting an internationalist flare and economic and political acuteness. It's now up to the administration and its bipartisan allies in Congress to seal the deal.