THE highest-ranking American official to visit China in a year arrives here Dec. 16 amid signs of easing tensions between Beijing and Washington.
Commerce Secretary Barbara Franklin pays a six-day trip to the Chinese capital, the southern China economic boom town of Shenzhen, and Hong Kong as both outgoing President Bush and newcomer Bill Clinton take steps to calm Chinese unease over Taiwan and tough talk on human rights abuses.
In a dramatic turnaround, Mr. Clinton backed away from his tough campaign criticism of Chinese human rights abuses and said there is no reason to isolate China for economic or political reasons.
"I don't think we'll have to revoke the MFN [most-favored-nation] status ... if we can achieve continued progress" on human rights and trade, he said.
Ms. Franklin, who will lead a lameduck delegation of more than 30 outgoing Bush administration officials, is on an Asian swing to promote American products and review market access and intellectual property rights' agreements. The trip is also meant to appease Chinese anger over recent American attention to rival Taiwan.
The Franklin trip is a counterbalance to United States Trade Representative Carla Hills's visit to Taiwan last month. During the American presidential election, Beijing was enraged when Mr. Bush, in a move to create jobs, agreed to sell F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan.
The commerce secretary is the first Cabinet official with economic responsibilities to visit China since the Army massacred hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989.
News reports from Washington say that Franklin is expected to authorize high-technology deals with China during the visit, specifically jet engines for use in military training aircraft and a Chinese bomber.
Some military analysts say that the bomber could be exported to Pakistan, a major buyer of Chinese military hardware.
During his presidency, Bush urged the US to maintain full trade ties with China in contrast to Clinton's campaign positions which advocated linking high-techology sales and other trade privileges to improvements in China's human rights record.
Clinton's backing off on China, however, eases concerns that the new president would attach conditions to China's most-favored-nation trade status when it is reviewed next June.
In recent months, China has allowed congressional critics of its human rights record to visit Tibet and has cleared the release of some prominent dissidents from detention or allowed others to travel overseas.