AUSTIN -- To say that my knowledge of Chinese trade issues is inadequate is a wild understatement -- it's not a hot topic in Nacogdoches. But at least I approach the subject with appropriate humbleness, instead of the damn-fool certainty that seems to afflict the other 2 percent of our countrymen who care about this issue.

And I must say it seems to me this is an area that calls for a becoming tentativeness. I have yet to find any evidence that anyone knows what all the consequences of "permanent normalization" of trade with China will be.

In some ways, this is a political no-brainer -- American business positively salivates at the prospect of Chinese markets, and the Clinton administration is siding with business, arguing that it's a bonanza. Most Republicans, responding to the siren call of their campaign contributors, favor the deal. Labor, religious, environmental and consumer groups are pressuring Democrats to vote "no."

Labor's argument is that the agreement will encourage U.S. companies to move their operations to China, where low wages and the lack of labor standards mean that the companies can make big profits, and the result will be another exodus of American jobs overseas. About two-thirds of the D's now oppose the agreement, even though President Clinton -- a longtime Democratic Leadership Council free-trader -- is leading the charge.

Adding to the festivities is one of those rare harmonic convergences of the far left and the far right. The left is convinced that unrestrained globalization is a bad deal for everyone, while the Pat Buchanan right is just convinced that it's a bad deal for American workers. Plus, your religious right is all worked up about persecution of Christians in China, though the geriatric regime there appears to be a nondiscriminatory persecutor of practically anyone with a belief system.

The human rights lobby is in a quandary. A major school of thought holds that the best way to get the Chinese government to improve its human rights record is to involve the nation in the world community; to open it up to outside influences and let its citizens see the light. Ostracizing the country for all those years certainly didn't do dog for human rights.

A peculiar report in the right-wing Washington Times alleges that Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing (can I help it if his name sounds like a cash-register noise?) is planning to take over the Panama Canal.

"Li is directly connected to Beijing and is willing to use his business influence to further the aims of the Chinese government," says a declassified Pentagon intelligence report, according to the newspaper. The implication is that these fiendishly clever Sino-commies are thinking long-term, while our greed-blinded business community can't look farther ahead than next quarter's profits.

True, Li's company, Hutchison Whampoa, has leased two ports at each end of the Panama Canal for the next 23 years. On the other hand, that's what his company does; the guy's a really big businessman from Hong Kong, perfectly familiar to the business press, which simply regards him as a major capitalist.

He has 18 container terminals around the Pacific, and one-tenth of the world's trade passes through them, according to Time magazine. His port operations handle 30 percent of Hong Kong's trade.

From a business point of view, the only impact of the vote by Congress to normalize trade relations is whether the United States gets to take full advantage of China's expected entry into the World Trade Organization. Congress has no role in that decision.

Pretty much your whole Establishment is in favor of this -- economists, including 13 Nobel laureates, 200 top CEOs, a group of former Treasury and State department secretaries going back five administrations, 47 governors and a partridge in a pear tree. If that isn't enough to make you suspicious, what is?

Now comes forth the administration with yet another argument: national security. They claim that this deal is such a bonanza -- the Chinese have made all these concessions, and all we have to do is treat the country like all our other trading partners -- that if it is rejected, the Chinese will never believe it was for economic reasons. They will conclude that it is a strategic decision to "pursue a course of confrontation, contention and containment," says Sandy Berger, the national security guy. Also, Berger says it would upset Japan and South Korea.

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is opposed to the deal. He keeps trying to find some compromise that will include "a methodical way" to ensure that China abides by its treaties, a mechanism to evaluate its human rights record and a code of conduct for American companies doing business in China. Imagine how popular that last item is making him with the chamber of commerce.

One can see why the Chinese would get real tired of having Congress do this annual review of their trade status. Congress' election-year politics, grandstanding, posturing and playing to various interest groups are probably enough to make 'em think democracy stinks.

So where do we come out on this, those of us who don't export soybeans or dream of selling skis to the Chinese? Robert Reich is a former Clinton labor secretary who always seems on the side of -- how to put this? The Average Joe or the Little Guy are so demeaning -- maybe just The Rest of Us.

Anyway, Reich thinks labor should set a price for China trade while it still has the votes to stop the deal and the other side is eager to move forward. Reich thinks the mistake labor made on NAFTA and GATT was just to oppose them, rather than set a price for cooperating. Labor lost both times and got nothing.

But rather than impose labor, environmental or human rights standards on the Chinese, Reich recommends that labor go for some clout here at home -- a ban on the permanent replacement of striking workers, a tripling of fines against employers who illegally fire workers for attempting to organize a union (which, I hate to tell you, is as common as dirt).

Reich's point is that if we get more power for blue-collar Americans, they'll be in a better position to protect their jobs against cheap foreign labor. This could well be the way to go.

Neither presidential candidate will talk about it, but I think it's clear to most Americans that free trade without restrictions is not a good deal for us. In polite political circles, where free trade is as great an idol as the Golden Calf, followed by blind worshipers, no one wants to hear from populist doubters. But the Rest of Us got the message a long time ago.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.