By a 264-166 margin, the House voted not to overturn President Clinton's announcement last month that he was extending for another year China's access to the same low tariffs that almost all other American trade partners enjoy.
Congress has never succeeded in rejecting the annual decision, made by every president since 1980, to extend normal trade status to China.
But this year anti-China sentiments have been particularly strong because of allegations that China tried to buy influence in American elections and swiped American missile technology.
Supporters of a measure to renew full-fledged trade relations, known as most-favored-nation status, with China said revoking such a privilege to protest issues unrelated to trade would be unrealistic and unwise.
But opponents called President Clinton's China policy shameless and immoral.
"Let's not allow ourselves to be fooled again, fooled into thinking that the same failed policy of economic engagement would be different this time around," Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said at a news conference with other lawmakers who oppose the legislation.
"A good vote for the American people is a 'no' vote on MFN," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said.
Most major U.S. trading partners have permanent most-favored-nation status, which means normal trade relations at the lowest possible tariffs. China's status has to be renewed each year under a 1974 law aimed at communist regimes with poor emigration records.
Wolf admitted there is no chance China's status will be revoked. But he insisted the vote should send a message that the United States wants to engage China but is concerned about its human rights and religious freedoms and the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation.
"We are not going to take away MFN. The Senate would never go along with it and the president would not sign it. We know that," said Wolf. "But this is an opportunity for every member of the House to vote their conscience."
Another opponent, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said the administration's policy on China is "shameless" and "immoral" and has not "worked to our benefit and it hasn't worked to our ideals."
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said denying normal trading relations to protest nontrade issues is "penny-wise and dollar-foolish, unrealistic and unwise."
"MFN is helping to drive China's transformation toward a more democratically oriented, internationally responsible free-market society," said Lieberman.
The United States has a $50 billion trade deficit with China. U.S. exports to China are mostly high-technology goods, including aircraft. Imports from China include low-technology products such as oys and apparel.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed