FOR 17 years, the State Department in Washington has been issuing annual reports on the human rights records of virtually every nation in the world. The reason? Congress took a vote and mandated the department to do it. Every year, the reports stir up emotion, anger and not a little rhetoric. They certainly place the State's officials in an unenviable position, since they tend to anger the regimes targeted for the more critical reviews while exposing domestic human rights policy to often unfavourable political scrutiny. This year's reports are no different. If one takes the classic human rights conundrum - China - the harsher the department's criticism (and it is harsh), the harder the bureaucrats will be criticised for failing to do something about it. Already, Congressional critics of the Beijing regime have begun commenting on Washington's incapacity to stop the human rights rot in the world's most populous country. Or as Human Rights Watch Asia's Mike Jendrzejczyk put it: 'There is a total discontinuity between US policy and these reports, and that's the unfortunate thing.' But, 17 years on, has the annual ritual become an anachronism, or has it, as many maintain, become more relevant than ever? When Congress made its original request for the reports, it was back in the middle of the Cold War with the abuses of Communist regimes at the forefront of the issue. In their infancy, the reports tended to lack a certain honesty - blackening the records of the Warsaw Pact nations, while drawing a veil over equally egregious abuses taking place in friendly states that were seen as bulwarks against the Red advance, in Central America, for example, or South Korea. But in the post-Cold War era, and especially in the current administration, which placed human rights on the front burner, it can be argued that the reports have been liberated from the prejudices of the past and, in an international context, become a more effective tool. James Przystup, Asian Studies director at Washington's Heritage Foundation, has a simple view of the reports' worth: 'They are about Congress acting in the old American tradition of being concerned about the human rights of other people.' America, of course, receives worldwide attention because it is about the only Western country willing to uphold this tradition in full public view. And while it remains the dominant economic and military power, it will probably continue to flaunt its right to do so. The relevance of such action becomes apparent in a case such as Russia - which is no longer guilty of the suppression of personal freedoms witnessed during the Soviet era, but which is targeted for heavy criticism in this year's report for its bloody attack on Chechnya. BUT the burning question remains for the administration: how to demonstrate a willingness to deploy more than a few pages of criticism in tackling the human rights abuses of one's neighbours? Again, China is the itch that won't go away. After the report's release, the administration's human rights official John Shattuck was repeatedly asked the same question: if the decision to remove the link with Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status and pursue a policy of economic involvement has so obviously failed over the past year, where to now? It was not one he was able to answer, save to stress that President Bill Clinton believed his policy of promoting human rights through trade and investment was the right one, and would stick to it. And in response to the hordes of Washington pundits who demand better, he might have also pointed out that one cannot expect several thousand years of China's undemocratic history to be overturned by a couple of flashy visits by Mr Clinton's chief salesman, Ron Brown. As Mr Przystup points out, the human rights issue in Congress is one 'that transcends party politics. It is not unique to liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans.' For this reason, it is still unclear how vehemently the new-look legislature will attack the China issue this spring - not to mention related irritants such as Indonesia. There are a number of highly vocal China-baiters in key positions, not least Gerald Solomon, who now runs the all-powerful House Rules Committee. But the more important number is how many confirmed free-traders remain. If, as expected, they still dominate, China's MFN is likely to be safe, despite all the noise.