WASHINGTON -- President Bush revealed plans yesterday to renew China's status as a favored trading partner for another year, an announcement that drew immediate fire in Congress and vows by critics to reverse the decision and restrict future actions.
Despite "major problems in China," Mr. Bush told reporters that he wanted to extend that country's most-favored-nation trade status because "we do not want to isolate China."
The president said he made "a strong pitch for it" during a luncheon with Republican senators on Capitol Hill.
"I look at the big picture. I look at the importance of China as a country," said Mr. Bush, a former envoy to Beijing. "I don't want to see us isolate them. I do want to see them come forward more on some of the things we've been asking for them to do."
His remarks spurred several lawmakers to intensify efforts to oppose Mr. Bush's trade policy, which they said ignores recent allegations of forced labor in China and the Chinese government's moves to provide Pakistan with mobile missile launchers and to assist Algeria in developing a nuclear weapons capability.
"The frustration level here is growing immensely," said Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md.
Mr. Sarbanes and several others have joined Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, who said yesterday that he would introduce a bill today that would terminate favored trade status for China in 180 days if the president cannot certify that China has met certain human rights conditions.
On May 2, Representative Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and 82 co-sponsors introduced legislation that would tie China's ability to retain favored trade status to its human rights record.
"Nearly two years after the government tanks crushed hundreds of young people in Tiananmen Square, the president wants to give the Chinese regime a $15 billion anniversary present," Mrs. Pelosi said, referring to China's large trade surplus with the United States.
The United States first granted favored trade status to China in 1980 and has renewed it annually --overlooking Beijing's repression of its citizens in favor of promoting economic ties and helping U.S. firms enter the Chinese market. China's trade status expires July 3, but Mr. Bush must formally notify Congress by June 3 if he wants to renew it.
The chief advantage of favored trade status is that U.S. importers pay roughly a tenth of the tariff on Chinese imports that they would pay without it. That generally means lower domestic prices for imported Chinese-made goods -- including clothing and electronics -- because of lower duties.
When Mr. Bush renewed China's trade status last year, he sparked a bitter, emotional controversy because lawmakers, Chinese students, labor officials and human rights activists were urging him to penalize China for its bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Several members of Congress accused Mr. Bush of rewarding the "butchers of Beijing."
Last October, the House approved a bipartisan bill that required Mr. Bush to certify that China had made "significant progress" toward achieving specific human rights goals before renewing its trade status in 1991, but the Senate failed to take it up before adjournment. The House also voted for a resolution disapproving of China's favored trade status.
Several senior congressional aides said yesterday that lawmakers would continue to pursue a "dual track" by pushing to approve a motion of disapproval within 90 days after receiving formal notice of Mr. Bush's decision while working to pass either the Pelosi or Mitchell bill.
"As a practical matter, it would take a two-thirds majority vote in both houses to block MFN for the next year," said one House strategist. "It'll be real difficult to stop. The real effort will have to be focused not on overturning MFN now but making future renewals based on presidential findings that China has made human rights improvements."
Senator Sarbanes, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, released a study of China's economy Tuesday that he said "raises serious concerns about prospects for change, both economic and political, in China."
The country's weapons modernization and arms sales program, its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators and the preoccupation of its aging leaders with maintaining party control and social stability have brought economic progress to a halt, the study suggests.
"We were patient for a year, and the situation has not improved at all," Mr. Sarbanes said yesterday.
In his comments to reporters, Mr. Bush cited China's support for the United States during the Persian Gulf war against Iraq as a reason for renewing its trade status.
"I go back to the days when I was in China as the equivalent of ambassador, and, though there are major problems in China, things that we don't like about their system, things are an awful lot better than they were back in 1975," he said.