WASHINGTON - As he prepared to embark on a trip to China, President Clinton said he supports giving China normal trading status on a permanent basis rather than annually reviewing Beijing's trade privileges.
Clinton said he wanted to avoid the fractious debate in Congress over China's most-favored-nation (MFN) status, the designation for normal trade relations, which many members of Congress oppose because of China's human-rights violations.
"I don't think this debate every year serves a particularly useful purpose," Clinton said, continuing the administration's softening in recent years toward China and fully reversing the attitude Clinton voiced when he ran for office in 1992, vowing to refuse Beijing normal trade relations.
The nine-day trip, the first by a U.S. president this decade, was arranged after Chinese President Jiang Zemin came to the United States last October.
In interviews Clinton gave to U.S. and Chinese reporters, he spoke of "cooperation" with a country that is home to one-fourth of the world's people and a burgeoning economy. Aides have said the presidents will discuss such contentious issues as human rights, religious persecution and arms control.
Asked if he expected an agreement to de-target nuclear missiles the two countries have pointed at each other, Clinton said, "I can't say that we have it yet, but if we could get it, I think it would be a good thing."
Clinton has been criticized because he plans to participate in a ceremony at Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of students and other activists demonstrated for democracy were killed in 1989.
"I want to see Tiananmen Square, and I will think about what happened there nine years ago," he said. "But I also will be thinking about the last turbulent century in Chinese history and the fact that the whole setting there has been the center of Chinese public life for probably 600 years now."
The comments came in interviews with the Los Angeles Times, CBS News, Cox Newspapers, McClatchy Newspapers and the Chinese media.
Clinton said he doubts Beijing will soon join the World Trade Organization (WTO), which seeks to foster freer trade among nations, although he believes it should.
"The Chinese, for all the work they've done in privatizing the economy and opening themselves to markets, still have too much access control and, from the point of view of American products and services, too much access denial," he said.
U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky echoed Clinton's remarks and said China appears to be reconsidering its desire to quickly enter the WTO.
"There's a lot of talk, but China is not yet ready to walk the walk," said Barshefsky, saying that China has made too few of the concessions to open its markets to outsiders that Western countries demand as a condition of entry into the 132-nation organization that sets the rules for world trade.
Chinese trade officials were not immediately available for comment on Barshefsky's remarks. In the past, China, which has been trying to enter the organization for 11 years, has been defensive about the membership issue, describing the opposition to its entry as unfair and politically motivated.
China wanted to be a founding member of the WTO, but a growing chorus of Chinese economists has warned that a quick accession to the organization could hurt Chinese companies by introducing too much competition too quickly.
Information from The New York Times is included in this report.