The U.S. Congress will decide this year whether to grant the People's Republic of China permanent normal trading relations status.

Currently, Congress debates (and approves) the formerly titled “most favored nation status” for China every year, as it has for about 20 years. But the Clinton administration, which also has supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization, argues the yearly vote on most-favored-nation status is divisive and unproductive.

Supporters of the U.S. policy contend that engaging China will help both the United States and Chinese economies, and that the resulting prosperity in China will open up its society and government.

“It will increase the pace of change in China,” said Samuel Berger, Clinton's national security adviser and China expert, in a speech Feb. 2 before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Berger did not mention recent reports of arrests of Catholics and churches being demolished, but he acknowledged that the Chinese government has stepped up interference with religion and expression. The U.S. government has listed China as “a country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, and is sponsoring a resolution condemning China's human rights record in the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

“Over the past year, we have seen an increase in its crackdown on political activities and dissent; stepped-up controls on unregistered churches; the suppression of ethnic minority groups, especially Tibetans; and the imprisonment of even more dissidents whose only crime is free speech,” Berger said.

He suggested that Chinese authorities are steadily embracing positive changes that may threaten the country's security in the short run. Berger said that by opening its economy, China is taking the risk that market reforms will “cause more short-term unemployment and the specter of social unrest.”

These fears can, in part, explain Chinese authorities'skittishness about religious movements, especially those they feel are independent from party control, Maryknoll Sister Janet Carroll, executive director of the U.S. Catholic China Bureau in South Orange, N.J., told the Register.

Spokesmen for the People's Republic of China's Embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.

Berger contended that lowering restrictions to trade and increasing American businesses' contact with China will spur Chinese people to demand a more responsive and just government. In the meantime, Berger said U.S. policy should be twofold: engage China economically, and scold it diplomatically when it transgresses human rights.

“We must and we will continue to speak out on behalf of people in China who are persecuted for their political and religious beliefs,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Archer, Republican chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, expressed support for the policy of engagement.

“There is a long way to go before China reaches international norms on religious liberty and other freedoms,” Archer told the Register in a written statement, “but we must not let that obscure that there has been tremendous positive movement in the last 10 years. The greatest opportunity for greater religious and cultural freedom in China will come from increased contact between the U.S. government and its citizens with Chinese citizens and their government.”

Critics of this policy argue the United States is aiding and abetting a brutal dictatorship.

Among current and recent presidential candidates, Alan Keyes, Gary Bauer and Patrick Buchanan have sharply criticized the Clinton administration's policy as callous and driven by greed.

Buchanan has argued that China has simply used trade with the United States to strengthen its currency and consolidate its grip on power.

“China has ignored our protests to pursue cultural genocide in Tibet and persecute Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians, and political dissidents,” Buchanan said in a speech last April in San Francisco. “Mr. Clinton's decision not to permit human rights outrages to interfere with trade has proven a shameful capitulation.”

Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation in Stamford, Conn., which monitors and supports the pro-Rome underground church in China, has called on Americans to call their representatives in Congress and ask them to rescind normal trading status. That, he told a conference sponsored by the Population Research Institute in Washington on Nov. 19, “would send a strong message to the Chinese government” that violation of human rights “does not pay.”

Matt McDonald