WASHINGTON —With Congress poised for a May debate on the question of trade with the People's Republic of China, the U.S. government knows of at least half a dozen Catholic bishops either imprisoned or under house arrest in China.

In its first report on International Religious Freedom, the State Department could verify the release of only one bishop under detention in China last year. “In May 1999, auxiliary Bishop Yan Weiping was found dead in Beijing shortly after being released from detention,” the State Department reported in February. “The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear.”

Many priests and parishioners were detained last year as well, according to the State Department, the Cardinal Kung Foundation and Freedom House, a human rights watchdog organization in Washington. Those same sources found that China has yet to document the release of many of them.

Spurred in part by the reports, unions and religious groups have planned rallies April 9 and 12 in Washington, D.C., to protest trade relations with China. With high-level trade talks scheduled this spring in the nation's capital, some expect the protests there to rival the intensity of December's “battle in Seattle” for intensi ty and violence.

“If these were people arrested a long time ago and still in prison, they would be cause enough for concern but this is a continuing pattern,” China-trade foe Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently noted. “Catholics across the country are con cerned about the arrests of the bishops.”

Both Reps. Bill Archer, R-Texas, and Christopher Smith, R-N.J., tried to inves tigate the arrests of the bishops without much cooperation from the Chinese Embassy. Archer chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with trade policy, and Smith the House International Relations subcommittee dealing with human rights.

Archer said he asked the Chinese ambassador directly about the arrests. The ambassador promised to look into it, he said.

President Clinton himself and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brought up the case of one bishop in their meetings with leaders of China, the State Department reported.

Despite the evidence of persecution of Catholics, advocates of trade with China point to other trends that indicate greater religious freedom in China. “You've got Rev. Billy Graham's son over there distributing Bibles,” Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute pointed out. “That wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago.”

In 1994, the Clinton administration “delinked” China trade policies from human rights concerns. The president argued that human rights concerns, such as religious freedom, should be pursued in other forums, a position key Republicans agree with.

Congressional backers of trade with China say they are seeking other ways to address human rights issues.

“We have a full-time staffer in our embassy there in Beijing,” said Don Carlson, chief of staff to Archer. “That staffer meets with all kinds of religious groups.”

The Clinton administration tried to introduce a resolution addressing China's human rights problems at the United Nations, but China blocked it from discussion. “I told the secretary of state, in as friendly a way as I could, either the Chinese are outsmarting us or we aren't trying hard enough,” Rep. Pelosi said.

That day, March 23, the secretary of state tried harder. She flew from India to Geneva to deliver a speech condemning China's human rights violations at the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting. Most of the Chinese delegates walked out

Pelosi said China employs a double standard on trade issues. “In the past, the Chinese government has used trade issues to lobby other nations to support its position,” Pelosi noted. “The Chinese who say we must not mix economics and human rights do exactly that at the U.N.”

A Better Way to Better China?

Some advocates of opening up trade with China say that this policy will lead to other freedoms as well. These considerations, those proponents of trade with China point out, underlie proposals to give China Permanent Normal Trade Relations status, a benefit of membership in the World Trade Organization that sets floors and ceilings on tariffs.

President Clinton himself also encourages this viewpoint. “While we will continue to have strong disagreement with China over issues ranging from human rights to religious tolerance to foreign policy,” Clinton wrote in his recent proposal to Congress, “we believe that bringing China into the World Trade Organization pushes China in the right direction in all of these areas.”

For their part, many Republicans in Congress agree. “Trade is a blunt instrument, but we do not have a whole lot of instruments,” Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., said. “I hope that China's [World Trade Organization] membership will give us leverage.”

Others remain skeptical. “While the U.S. has claimed an intention at least to speak out on human rights, the substance of U.S.-China relations — trade, military contacts, high level summits — go forward while Chinese leaders continue to crack down on dissidents throughout the country of 1 billion,” Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., recently said.

Decades-Long Crackdown

April 14 is the anniversary of President Richard Nixon's 1971 decision to lift the trade embargo with China. Trade foes say China hasn't improved enough in the nearly three decades of commerce to justify lessening restrictions.

In fact, the actual number of bishops recognized by the Vatican who are under some form of detention may be higher than the half-dozen reported by the State Department. “Almost all underground bishops are either in jail, under house arrest, hiding with or without arrest warrant, in labor camps or under severe surveillance,” according to the Cardinal Kung Foundation.

The foundation is named for the late archbishop of Shanghai, Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei, who died last month in exile in Stamford, Conn. His death, after a priestly life spent persecuted by Chinese communists, put a national spotlight on human rights in China.

The Cardinal Kung foundation lists 14 bishops who are under some form of detention or surveillance in China. The total number of underground bishops arrested in China, in turn, make up a sizable portion of the Church leaders recognized by the Vatican.

The Hong Kong-based Holy Spirit Centre puts the number of bishops in the underground Church at 60 and the number of Catholics in China at 10 million. According to the State Department, 4 million Catholics belong to the official church not recognized by the Vatican.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum) Pope John Paul II wrote that it will take more than economic means to change Marxist regimes.

He said of Pope Leo XIII's ground-breaking encyclical on social teaching, “He was convinced that the grave problems caused by industrial society could be solved only by cooperation between all forces. …

“Pope Leo, however, acknowledged with sorrow that the ideologies of his time, especially Liberalism and Marxism, rejected such cooperation. Since then, many things have changed, especially in recent years. The world today is ever more aware that solving serious national and international problems is not just a matter of economic production or of juridical or social organization, but also calls for specific ethical and religious values, as well as changes of mentality, behavior and structures” (No. 60).

And pro-trade voices in the United States say that, apart from trade status, it is still possiblefor the White House to use religious freedom conventions to pressure China.

But trade foes say more the leverage is needed. Rep. Smith said, “The only way we could go further is to give the president the freedom to do absolutely nothing in the face of severe, widespread and ongoing human rights violations and persecutions.”

Malcolm A. Kline is editor of the National Journalism Center in Washington.