- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

The Clinton administration now stands accused of deliberately breaking American law in its furious campaign to surrender all U.S. economic leverage against China's repression of its own people.

The charge deals with the administration's handling of a bill to end the annual congressional reviews of the imprisonment, torture and murders of Chinese who still insist on worshipping according to their faiths and speaking according to their convictions.

Passage of the bill would mean that China would get what Washington now calls "permanent normal trading relations" with the United States. Those relations with China, of course, were never either normal or permanent because of Beijing's human-rights crimes.

Translated, under the bill the Politburo would not have to worry its head any longer that Congress might raise tariffs in response to Communist atrocities against dissidents, or to protest some inevitable future Tiananmen Square.

The legal case against the administration's intensive and expensive lobbying was put clearly by Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican. He is a longtime fighter for human rights. He has refused therefore to go along with President Clinton and Republican leaders in trying to free China's huge police forces and controlled judiciary of the slightest American restraint.

China has instructed the whole garden of America's China-trade lobbies to muster their treasuries and brigades of propagandists for the bill, which kills the yearly reviews and the trade penalties against China that might grow from them.

The lobbies really did not need those instructions particularly the administration, the most important pro-China lobby. The bugle sounded for the White House bureaucracy to get to work for the bill.

The White House also summoned employees of the State, Commerce, Labor, and Agriculture departments, of the Treasury, the National Security Council and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to work days and nights in a new "war room," better called China room.

Their job is to whip up and distribute propaganda for the bill, for the press and Congress, keep careful watch on every senator and representative, coordinate China-business lobbies to be a kind of super lobby for China and Mr. Clinton.

The problem, says Mr. Wolf, is that the whole set up is illegal. This attitude about not breaking the law may strike the administration's warrior squads and their bosses as finicky, but there it is 18 U.S. Code Section 1913. It prohibits using appropriated funds for publicity or propaganda purposes or to lobby Congress. The people in that room are certainly paid by government funds, and their phone calls, supplies, time and fax machines are, too unless they are using private-lobby funds for government work; unthinkable.

Mr. Wolf sent a heads-up letter to the Government Accounting Office, which is supposed to keep an eye out for government offices, including the White House, that act as if pesky expenditure laws are not meant for them.

So the GAO sent a polite but specific letter to the heads of all the departments and agencies that drafted employees for work in the China room, asking for names, salaries, time spent there, trips, expenses, who paid how much, names and details about who still plans to travel where and to whom press packets were sent to promote the bill.

Also, GAO wanted lists of any private groups, trade associations, coalitions and state or local governments with which those federal government employees made contact during their endeavors for the bill. Oh, and what actions did the China room folk take to get compliance with good old 18 U.S.C. 1913. The law carries a fine of only $500 but a prison sentence of up to a year. The vote on China's trade status restraints or no restraints is supposed to come the week of May 22. Clintonites and Chinese officials count on the Senate to pass it.

But in the House, the lobby people know they have to get more Democratic votes. Congress is on a two week recess and will use a large part of it to find out what voters feel. Lobbyists for China will be madly busy; Americans who don't want to surrender to China have their chance to say so to their congressional representatives.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader, has split with Mr. Clinton on the bill. He says the United States should not unilaterally surrender its ability to influence China through trade that it would be a "recipe for serious trouble."

You might want to remind your representatives of those words, in person or in writing. And you could tell them, in case they don't know yet, about the charge of hijacking U.S. government money for the sake of the world's biggest, strongest, toughest dictatorship.

A.M. Rosenthal is the former executive editor of the New York Times.

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