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WHAT'S HILLARY CLINTON THINKING IN PUSH TO ATTEND U.N. CONFERENCE IN BEIJING?

All things being equal, Hillary Rodham Clinton would be looking into the possibility of getting a bit sick about now.

Nothing serious, mind you; not even a real illness. A diplomatic "indisposition" would do nicely - anything that would provide a reasonable excuse for her to back away gracefully from attending the United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women that opens in China early next month.But all things are not equal where China and Hillary Clinton are concerned. Despite serious misgivings among some of President Clinton's top foreign policy advisers, the first lady almost certainly will be going to Beijing.

Never mind that China continues to hold Harry Wu, a Chinese-American human rights activist, on phony espionage charges that call for the death penalty.

Never mind that Chinese police have for the past month been rounding up dissidents, political activists and anybody else they don't like to prevent any "embarrassments" when the U.N. conference opens.

And finally, never mind that China just defied everyone's concerns about nuclear weapons tests by setting off another underground hydrogen bomb blast Thursday morning.

With all these negatives to consider, key officials in the State Department and National Security Council have argued against Hillary Clinton's attendance at the women's conference in Beijing, the fourth of its kind put on by the United Nations. Her presence there, they explained, would send the Chinese an unequivocal message that Washington doesn't really care about human rights or Beijing's increasingly belligerent behavior.

"It's a conference that's not about China. It's a conference that's about women," a State Department spokesman told reporters when pressed about Hillary Clinton's plans.

Not that the U.S. delegation's official leader, U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, couldn't deliver a strong message on women's rights. Or that if she faltered Bella Abzug or Geraldine Ferraro, two other U.S. conference delegates, couldn't step in to help out.

"The issue for her (Hillary Clinton) and for all of us is that these conferences are very important for women," Albright explained.

And what about Harry Wu, the Chinese-born American activist imprisoned by Beijing and threatened with execution? What of Wu's wife making a personal appeal to Hillary Clinton not to attend the conference if he's still in jail?

"There's a genuine question of whether the first lady's going or not going would have any effect on the case," Albright answered coolly.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton made it clear she intended to go to Beijing, and by week's end everyone was getting in line, strong misgivings notwithstanding. Even so, an announcement of the first lady's plans was being held off until next week. The hope was that Beijing would somehow look kindly on the White House's dilemma and free Wu. That way, Hillary Clinton's attendance wouldn't look too embarrassing.

Whether or not that happens - and the Chinese haven't been looking at all kindly on the White House lately - Beijing can be counted on to reap a huge propaganda bonanza from Hillary Clinton's attendance.

The first lady will be all over Chinese television and newspapers. But any message she delivers about women's or human rights almost certainly won't.

Instead, Hillary Clinton's presence and the conference in general will be portrayed as yet another sign of China's increasing prestige in the world. The wise and beneficent policies of President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Li Peng will have been vindicated.

All this is too bad because the World Conference on Women might otherwise be very productive. It is, after all, dealing with issues such as domestic violence, birth control and women's economic rights - issues important to women, and men, everywhere.

If the conference were being held just about any place else but China, Hillary Clinton's presence would be a first-rate idea. She is, after all, a forceful speaker who can more than hold her own on the international stage.

But as it is, the first lady will wind up providing legitimate cover for some of the world's master propagandists and human rights thugs.