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At the next meeting of the Chinese politburo, it will not be surprising if one of the aged despots asks peevishly, "Why didn't we kill Harry Wu?"

They had Harry Wu. They easily could have eliminated him. They failed to, and now they may pay dearly for their lapse.A geologist by education, Wu committed a major crime in 1956: He criticized the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary. For that his communist masters in Beijing sent him to their version of the gulag, China's vast network of prison camps.

Wu's mother committed suicide after his arrest. His brother, also a political prisoner, was beaten to death by guards. Wu himself served 19 years at forced labor, producing goods that the government exported.

The dissident was released in 1976 and came to America in 1985. Wu knew China was sending prison-made goods here - in violation of U.S. law.

But he could never get the State Department and Customs Bureau to take his charges seriously. Perhaps they were influenced by the China-coddling tilt of the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Last June and July, Wu returned to China, posing as a businessman seeking items manufactured by prisoners. He visited 20 camps and found their wardens willing to supply forced-labor goods for export.

Wu's wife, Ching Lee, recorded these deals with a small video camera hidden in her handbag. Both were extremely brave: Wu is a Chinese citizen and would have been returned to the camps had be been found out. Washington could not have protected him.

The tapes were broadcast on CBS's "60 Minutes," causing a sensation. One poignant image showed prisoners working knee-deep in what Wu said was a toxic chemical. Wu testified before congressional subcommittees, and possibly the sclerotic bureaucracy will move to exclude the output of communist jails.

The goods in question include shoes, toys, clothing, textiles, hand tools and electronics. Their import not only breaks the law but also kills American jobs.

In a related case, Customs agents raided 23 companies in New York and Los Angeles last month and found large amounts of Chinese-made clothing illegally brought into the country. To evade its quota, China had mislabeled the items as coming from Hong Kong, Macao, Panama and elsewhere.

Most of the raided companies are owned by the Chinese government, and it was furious. Beijing chewed out the American ambassador there, and the Chinese ambassador in Washington lectured the State Department. It was a classic example of Chinese chutzpah: They knowingly violate our laws, and then they scream at us when we enforce them.

With ploys like exploiting cheap prison labor, lying about the origin of goods, closing their market to many American exports and pirating technology and patents, China is enjoying a $13 billion trade surplus with the U.S. this year, second only to Japan's.

All this, added to Beijing's dreadful human rights record, has many members of Congress demanding retaliation. President Bush insists on keeping the trade door open to encourage Chinese reformers.

But precious little reform exists in China. Just ask Harry Wu.