Once upon a time there was a good shoemaker. Business was booming, until a competing shoemaker began to saturate his market. This competitor was evil. He curtailed his workers’ prayer lives to make his shop their all. He forced women workers to kill new children if they already had one. And he exploited child labor.

One day, the evil shoemaker offered the good one a deal: The two could work in partnership in perpetuity, trading one part of the market for another. The good shoemaker shook the evil shoemaker' s hand. The two became very wealthy and lived happily ever after.

Huh?

This morality would never hold in a story. But the Clinton administration is urging that it can do fine in real-world dealings with China. The White House and congressional Republican leaders want to give China permanent most-favored-nation status. The status (which, because of squeamishness about China, has been renamed “normal” trade status) is currently reviewed every year by Congress in a controversial vote.

The U.S. State Department's latest Country Report, released in February, confirms that during 1999 the despicable behavior of the Chinese communist regime has gotten worse in virtually every category of human rights concern.

The Register has carried several reports on China's religious persecution, including attacks on Catholic churches, priests and bishops faithful to Rome. Its forced abortion policy means that, after a woman has had one child, if she gets pregnant again, she will be grabbed and pulled, sometimes kicking and resisting, to an abortion machine.

Chinese labor activists are regularly jailed or imprisoned in re-education camps for advocating free and independent trade unions, for protesting corruption and embezzlement, for insisting that they be paid the wages that they are owed and for talking to journalists about working conditions in China. A variety of products exported from China are made in political prison camps to profit the Communist regime, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., points out.

President Clinton recently said that if the United States rejects China as a favored trading partner, it would be making “a mistake of truly historic proportions.” Putting China in the World Trade Organization, he says, “represents the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s, when President Nixon first went there, and later in the decade when President Carter normalized relations.”

We would point out that, for all the symbolism that surrounded both those presidential overtures to China, they did not create the kind of “positive change” in China that prevents government-sponsored killing.

And it is worth noting that, in just three months, Clinton plans to make a momentous national security decision — whether and how to go forward with plans to develop a more sophisticated form of national missile defense, much like President Reagan's “Star Wars” system.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, against whom do we need to defend ourselves? Smaller rogue nations, certainly. But also, say military experts, from an aggressive China.

China has yet to honor a single treaty made with the United States. Why are Clinton and Congress so eager to add yet another non-binding document to the list of trade agreements China has broken with impunity? Clinton went out on a limb in Seattle to be sure that protections of workers’ rights and the environment were included in the World Trade Organization's legal framework. Why, if these rules will immediately have to be waived, for China?

The surrender of our yearly review of China's trade status ought to be unthinkable right now. When it comes to workers, religious believers, torture victims and others in China, the leverage this yearly review gives us could become a lifesaver.