Deal may clear First Lady's road to Peking

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Just when the impasse seemed total, hints are emerging of a possible resolution of the Harry Wu affair which might allow Hillary Rodham Clinton to attend next month's UN conference on women in Peking - and bring at least a touch of thaw to the currently glacial Sino-US relationship.

Not long ago, the honorary chairmanship of the US delegation to the conference was the perfect role for Mrs Clinton, ideal for a First Lady closely identified with feminist causes and free of diplomatic undertones. Alas, no longer. Though she still dearly wants to go through with it, her visit has fallen foul of the myriad difficulties plaguing ties between Washington and Peking, above all, Mr Wu, the Chinese-American human rights campaigner detained in June and facing espionage charges which could bring the death penalty.

Political and public outcry here has failed to sway the Chinese authorities, and Republicans, Mr Wu's wife, and even senior Democrats have urged the First Lady to cancel the trip. Now Mike McCurry, Mr Clinton's spokesman, says the White House has received "some indications" that Mr Wu could be put on trial within the next few days, convicted on lesser charges and expelled.

Simultaneously, it emerged yesterday that Peter Tarnoff, under-Secretary of State and the third-ranking official at the State Department, will be in Peking to discuss not just Mr Wu but the range of grievances between the two countries, ranging from US complaints on trade, arms proliferation and human rights abuses to China's fury when Washington last May allowed Lee Teng-Hui to become the first Taiwanese leader to visit the US.

If the Tarnoff visit goes well and Mr Wu is soon back in the US, Mrs Clinton probably will feel able to take part in the conference. In the meantime, American advance men are continuing their preparations in China, and a decision originally expected yesterday appears to have been postponed until at least early next week.

There is another, subtler sign of possible accommodation: a trip by former President George Bush to attend a private sector business gathering in the Chinese capital, at same time as the conference. Officially, the timing is said to be co-incidence.

But Mr Bush, once a US special envoy to Peking in the days before establishment of full diplomatic ties in 1979, is a trusted figure for the Chinese leadership, a firm believer in realpolitik who while President consistently rejected congressional pressure to impose trade sanctions to punish human rights abuses by China, and even secretly sent a top aide to Peking within weeks of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

Mr Clinton too would prefer a pragmatic approach towards the next obvious candidate for economic and military superpowerdom. But domestic politics and his own perceived weakness in foreign affairs make that difficult: China policy is being inexorably sucked into the 1996 campaign.

The Democrats who once fought to have China's most favourable trade status revoked continue to believe Washington should make the fight against human rights violations, including the forced labour camps investigated by Mr Wu, its top priority in dealings with Peking. Republicans echo that theme, including the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole - front-runner in the Republican race to challenge Mr Clinton next year - who said a visit by Mrs Clinton before Mr Wu was released would serve no purpose.

More worrying is Peking's muscle-flexing, as evidenced by its sale of arms and weapons technology to countries like Iran and Pakistan, missile tests aimed at intimidating Taiwan and its claim to the Spratly Islands. All has led to calls for a policy of US "containment" of China which, it is argued, would not be helped by Mrs Clinton going to Peking.