boisterous rally by thousands of union members Wednesday in Washington officially opened the curtain on several days of street theater against globalization by a variety of groups.

Organizers hope for a repeat of the tumultuous protests that shut down Seattle four months ago during the summit meeting of the World Trade Organization. Hopefully that won't include the violence that marked the Seattle demonstrations.But given the vigor of the union show and the flamboyance of a preview event - Washington police arrested seven activists Monday who were trying to scale the World Bank headquarters - organizers may achieve their objective of a series of colorful, dramatic morality plays that will shock the public, please press cameramen and build awareness of their causes.

Certainly peaceful protest is a legitimate activity. It would be a pity, however, if the simplistic dazzle of the street theater were to blind the nation's lawmakers to the less colorful but more profound realities of global trade.

It's a subject that deeply concerns the U.S. export, import and transportation industries, of course, from the largest companies to the very smallest. But it also is critical to the rest of U.S. business and to American labor and consumers, too.

The most tangible and immediate issue is the one that was at the center of the union rally Wednesday: trade with China, in particular the upcoming vote on granting China permanent normal-trade-relations status.

The vote, scheduled in the House of Representatives for the week of May 22, will not decide whether China gets into the world's rules-based trading system; that's up to the 136-nation organization itself. What the vote will decide is whether the United States will benefit once China does become a member, as it ultimately is all but certain to do. The Senate is expected to pass the measure, but it's an open question in the House.

If China doesn't get permanent NTR, the same trade status nearly every other nation gets, the United States won't benefit. And there's a lot to lose. Under the market-access agreement the Clinton administration reached with Beijing in November as part of the WTO-accession process, China agreed to a wide swath of actions, which include eliminating duties on high-technology goods by 2005; cutting agricultural tariffs in half by 2004; opening its market to global insurers by 2003; allowing U.S. companies to import and export without going through a local trading company; and opening up such services as freight fowarding and warehousing.

No comparable actions would be required by the United States; U.S. markets are already largely open.

Supporters estimate that U.S. exports to China would increase by $13 billion a year by 2005. And the U.S. Department of Commerce released reports this week detailing how new export and job opportunities would be generated in each of the 50 states.

If Congress rejects permanent normal trade relations with China, the United States will not only forgo those benefits, but will watch as other nations in the WTO cash in on them.

Yet American organized labor is pulling out the stops to convince the House to reject permanent NTR for China. It calls such trade status a ''blank check'' that would reward repressive and obstreperous conduct by Beijing, a ''notorious abuser of human rights,'' and somehow hurt American workers.

No one would dispute that China has a dismal human-rights record. No one would argue it is a not repressive, backward society with a penchant for rattling sabers. No one would claim it is an accommodating nation with which to deal, or that its entry into the modern global trading system will be simple or easy.

But it would be unrealistic, unproductive and unwise to pretend China doesn't exist, or to try to make it go stand by itself in an international corner. The United States did that for the first 20-plus years of communist China's existence; it didn't change anything. Moreover, the annual congressional reviews of China's trade status have produced little except an opportunity for U.S. politicians to play to the U.S. press; the status has never been denied.

What will change China is becoming part of the world's trading system and coming under its rules. As the Business Coalition for U.S.-China Trade aptly put it, China's entry into the WTO is not a reward but a challenge. Change won't come simply or swiftly. But China will be held nonetheless - at times, no doubt, kicking and screaming - to the same rules that apply to the rest of the WTO nations.

Freer trade will increase the contacts that China and its people have with the West and its way of living. That will increase the horizons and expectations of the Chinese, which will ultimately have an impact on the Chinese government.

Greater trade will also support those in China who recognize the need for economic reform, and who are working for it. Denial of permanent NTR would hurt the reformers and, ironically, reward the unrepentant hard-liners to whom repression is a legitimate tool of government.

In short, permanent normal trade relations, the WTO and greater trade will benefit the United States and have a positive and far-reaching impact on China. U.S. lawmakers should't let simplistic rhetoric, delivered with great emotion in the heat of a presidential election year, obscure those facts.

Likewise, lawmakers and policy-makers shouldn't take the street theater that will follow through the weekend for more than it is worth. Activists from labor, environmental and other groups seem to be far more interested in broad melodrama than facts as the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank take place in Washington. It may be entertaining. But it's nothing on which to base decisions.

At least this time around, business is involved and working vigorously to communicate its position in support of trade. It's gaining allies; witness the 44 governors who signed a U.S. Chamber of Commerce letter in support of permanent NTR. And the administration, too, has pushed strongly for the measure.

Now if Congress will only pass permanent NTR - and Washington will stay on a pro-trade course.