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President Clinton insists an 11th-hour trade deal with China shows his strategy of "constructive engagement" is working. Critics contend the deal is a "sham" in which the United States has once again backed down in a trade showdown with China.

The agreement reached by negotiators Monday in Beijing averts for the moment the possibility of trade war between the two countries. Without a deal, the United States was prepared to impose punitive tariffs on $2 billion worth of Chinese clothing and other imports, and the Chinese government had vowed to retaliate with economic sanctions on U.S. goods.Clinton praised the deal that was reached and said it "proves that staying involved and engaged with the Chinese - through the difficult times as well as the good ones - is the right course of action."

Critics charged that there was no evidence to suggest China would come any closer to carrying out the new promises than it did in enforcing the previous commitments to crack down on factories churning out millions of illegal copies of American computer programs, movies and music.

"This victory celebration is not about real change in Chinese behavior; it is a PR stunt to fool the Congress and the public," said Kevin L. Kearns, head of a coalition trying to convince Congress to overturn Clinton's decision to renew China's most-favored-nation trade status.

But administration officials predicted Congress will not overturn the MFN renewal and said the showdown over theft of intellectual property would help to convince lawmakers that Clinton was serious in protecting U.S. interests.

"For those on the Hill who are looking at this question of China, constructive engagement is working," Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor said at a briefing.

For the moment, U.S. companies making movies, music and computer programs - many of them headquartered in vote-rich California - are swallowing their doubts and insisting that the new agreement will work to halt piracy of their products where a February 1995 pact failed.

"I don't want to judge this agreement by the failed agreement in February 1995," said Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. `I think there is a new commitment and a new resolve on the part of our government and on the part of the Chinese government."

Jay Berman, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America, said his group was "relieved and delighted" with the agreement, which was reached following five-days of negotiations. The U.S. side was led by Acting U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky.

American computer, film and record companies said copying of their products by Chinese pirate factories cost them $2.3 billion in lost sales last year despite the February 1995 agreement.