In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton took every opportunity to assail George Bush for "coddling tyrants" in his cozy relations with China's leaders. Now, Clinton is eating his words. In a fundamental shift in policy, the Administration is moving away from human rights as the focus of U.S.-China policy. Instead, Washington is coming around to Bush's view that economic and strategic ties to China are too vital to be held hostage to Beijing's human rights record. "It's been an uncomfortable education for the President," says one senior Administration official.

For now, Clinton has to keep human rights on the front burner. Under pressure from Congress, he signed an order requiring China to make significant progress on such issues as freeing political prisoners and ending forced abortions to gain an extension of most-favored-nation trade status this June. But if Beijing makes enough progress to win MFN, as U.S. officials say is increasingly likely, the Administration will seek ways to separate human rights and trade issues in the future.

Such top officials as National Economic Council Director Robert E. Rubin, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor want trade to come first. "China's moving in the right direction on human rights, and U.S. investors won't jump into the market so long as MFN comes up for renewal every year," says one Administration advocate. The State Dept. is leaning toward a multiyear renewal of MFN.

With China becoming both an economic and military superpower, Clinton now knows that it's imperative for Washington to maintain friendly relations. But he still must persuade Congress to ease its fixation on human rights. With help from Beijing, however, Clinton may be able to bring U.S.-Chinese relations back to where they were at the start of the Administration -- the Bush Administration, that is.

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