On the eve of a high-level lobbying visit to Western Europe and the United States, China announced the removal of licenses and quotas on another 195 imported goods, following similar action last year on 283 items.
The move "is designed to bring the import system closer to requirements of international practice and to set up a new import system with tariffs as its major means of regulation," said Long Yongtu, assistant minister of foreign trade and economic cooperation.
"This marks an important part of China's efforts not only in reforming its import-management system, but also in pushing forward the process of restoring its contracting status in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade," he said.
GATT is the Swiss-based referee of world trade. China has been negotiating since 1986 to rejoin and is particularly keen on doing so this year so that it automatically will become a founder member of the successor World Trade Organization.
However presented, Mr. Long's announcement of speedier abolition of import controls likely was timed for Mr. Clinton's decision on China's eligibility for continued most-favored-nation trade treatment.
MFN guarantees the lowest duties on its exports.
Mr. Clinton was expected to announce late Thursday or today that he will renew that status for China, despite a finding that China had not met all of seven human rights conditions imposed by the president last year in an executive order. He was expected to block imports of Chinese firearms and ammunition, worth about $100 million a year but leave to Congress the question of whether to take broader trade action as punishment for human rights abuses.
Mr. Clinton was also expected to establish an advisory committee on China policy, and establish a set of voluntary "challenges" to American firms to promote democratic values in China.
Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell said Thursday morning that he was prepared to go forward with legislation this year putting punitive duties on imports of Chinese goods made in factories owned by the Chinese military, and on "certain products."
An aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who will sponsor the bill in the House, said those products would be a list of more than $3 billion a year in imports that was prepared in 1992 for possible retaliation against China's piracy of patents and copyrights.
Added to that is roughly $1 billion in imports from military-owned factories, according to congressional aides.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin told reporters Thursday that the attachment of any conditions to MFN "would be unac- ceptable" to China.
Speaking in Hong Kong, Peter Sutherland, director-general of GATT, suggested Mr. Clinton's decision could influence the body's deliberations on China's re-entry.
"Undoubtedly (renewal of MFN) will facilitate the negotiations because the principle of MFN, whilst it's being discussed in the United States in a purely bilateral context, is of fundamental importance to the GATT and to the WTO," he said in a radio interview Thursday.
"Clearly the World Trade Organization needs China just as China needs to be a member of the World Trade Organization," said Mr. Sutherland, who visited Beijing earlier this month.
"Had that issue (of MFN) not been satisfactorily resolved with the United States it would have had a negative impact on the negotiations," he said.
What China must do now, he said, is make its trade policies and practices more open to external scrutiny. He cited as outstanding issues uniform administration of trade rules, guarantees on the treatment of imports and the role of state-run enterprises.
Membership in GATT requires broadly open markets with minimal government interference and a transparent trading structure. GATT and U.S. officials, who have conducted some of the talks, are pessimistic about China's qualifying this year.
The 195 products to be freed from controls were not delineated. Officials say 30 will be liberalized this year and the rest by the end of 1995, as promised in a Sino-U.S. memorandum of understanding on market access.
The timetable for liberalization is "ahead of schedule," Mr. Long said. ''This demonstrates China's sincerity and capability to fulfill its commitment."
Mr. Long leaves today for talks with the European Union about its GATT bid, to be followed by similar sessions in Washington beginning June 3 - the date by which President Clinton must make a crucial decision on China trade.
The Chinese official promised to unveil a "large volume of background on its foreign trade."
U.S. and European business executives frequently complain of nasty surprises suddenly emerging after negotiations with Chinese counterparts supposedly are completed.
Discussions with the Europeans will focus on tariffs, tariff exemptions and rights of foreign trade, Mr. Long said.
China has abolished its two-tier currency system and is revamping taxation and banking systems along Western lines. But it still must dismantle many protectionist barriers.
Wang Xinkui, deputy director of the Shanghai Foreign Trade Institute, said recently that re-joining GATT would mean continued trade deficits for China as imports grow.
China reported a deficit last year of US$12.2 billion, the first since 1989 and largest since 1985, as imports well outpaced exports.