AWEEK is a long time in politics, but when it comes to international trade, six months is but the batting of an eye. Only a few weeks ago, it seemed the gruelling annual debate over China's Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status was a thing of the past, and that the only thing left in play was whether the United States Congress would vote to grant it on a permanent basis. From that idyllic high point - idyllic to the American business lobby, that is - there was certainly a long way to fall. And the descent has been rapid. Rumblings have been heard in Washington for about a month that the right wing of the ruling Republican Party in the House of Representatives was making ominous noises about China and felt it was time to pull away the MFN rug from under the Beijing leadership's feet. That in itself was hardly likely to ring alarm bells among those who have the biggest stake in continued MFN, not least the Hong Kong Government. After all, last year's vote on the trading privileges was a desultory affair, with anti-MFN resolutions being roundly defeated in the House and never even making it to the Senate. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin revealed, during a swing through Asia, that the administration was not only interested in this year's MFN debate - it was downright worried. MFN, Mr Rubin warned, was going to be a tough battle. If that were not enough, House Speaker Newt Gingrich - who despite his blunt criticism of China, is a pro-MFN free marketeer par excellence - had corporate America choking on its corn flakes last Sunday morning. On a Sunday news talk show, Mr Gingrich dropped a bombshell - he was considering whether, in view of all the current concern over China's conduct, MFN should be granted for only six months when it is up for renewal in June. With the fate of Hong Kong currently at the forefront of the US-Sino relationship, the speaker's rationale was that Washington would want to see how Beijing dealt with the post-handover Special Administrative Region (SAR) before continuing to sign off on the regular bilateral trade relationship. 'The jury is out' on whether China would get the routine 12-month extension, Mr Gingrich said. And when one adds the fact that his number two, Dick Armey, has warned that he is undecided on the issue, and that the Democrats' leader in the House, Richard Gephardt, is a confirmed anti-MFN crusader, it is not surprising that MFN complacency has given way to outright panic. A couple of days after the Gingrich comments, the Hong Kong Commissioner in Washington, Kenneth Pang, summoned his staff and a formidable team of private lobbyists to an urgent meeting to plan a counter-attack. Those lobbyists have already begun to prowl the corridors of Capitol Hill, spreading the same gospel they have spread for many years since 1989, and had hoped that they would not have to be spreading again this year. Stick up for Hong Kong by all means, they are saying, but losing MFN would have the reverse effect on the territory. A six-month MFN might sound a reasonable solution to abating the concerns about China but, their message goes, it is nothing more or less than conditional MFN - a concept that was supposed to have been long ago discarded. The Hong Kong Government's campaign has already been bolstered by the backing of Hong Kong Democratic Party leader Martin Lee Chu-ming, who rallied his many fans behind MFN last year and has been trying to do so again this year. Also preparing themselves for battle are the formidable battalions of the business lobby, not least the powerful US-China Business Council, which will be launching a large campaign to push waverers into the pro-trade camp. 'This is going to be a very hard battle,' one Hong Kong official said. 'Because of Chinagate and the domestic politics, this is a tough one.' There have been hard-won victories each and every year since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown transformed the MFN issue into a political battleground in Congress. But because the forces of commerce have always won out over the voices of human rights groups, the matter has never got past the House and into the Senate since the heady days of the early 1990s when President George Bush had to use his power of veto to keep MFN intact. Yet so deep has the resentment of China grown on Capitol Hill that some are suggesting that the matter may indeed progress this spring to the Senate, in which case the pro-MFN flank is relying on the support of the body's traditionally more moderate membership. How has the MFN issue degenerated in such a short period from a shoo-in to such a political tightrope walk? Four new factors are involved in the mix: this summer's handover of Hong Kong, the Chinagate scandal of alleged influence-peddling by China's US Embassy, the political pressure being placed on the beleaguered speaker, Mr Gingrich, and - perhaps most crucially - the sudden involvement of the Christian right in the anti-China brigade. The Hong Kong issue has become such a focal point of US-Sino relations that many members of Congress seemed quite prepared to remove MFN over the wishes of Hong Kong officials in order to assert their will regarding the territory's greater political future. Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa's recent announcement of plans to curtail existing civil liberties statutes has only rendered this will stronger. As for Chinagate, the issue has served to galvanise the position of the anti-MFN brigade, if only because legislators are now falling over themselves to avoid taking any decisions which might smack of China's influence. Even moderates like Mr Armey fear being tainted, no matter how nebulous the evidence. When it comes to the speaker's role, the issue is one of politics pure and simple. In his heart, Mr Gingrich believes in MFN, and nothing he saw during his China visit changed his mind. But he is under enormous pressure from his party's right wing to get tough on Beijing, and at a time when his position of power is being threatened by party malcontents, MFN is just one issue on which he is prepared to compromise in order to galvanise his support. Which raises the issue of the conservative wing, which has found a renewed cause in MFN this year. Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has of course revised his protectionist tirade against the Chinese trade surplus. But an even greater force will be the Family Research Council, a Christian family values organisation whose leader, Gary Bauer, is already quietly campaigning hard, on the theme of religious persecution in China. The target audience is the many younger House members relatively new to China issues, whose votes could be amassed to provide the kind of momentum conceivably leading to the kind of six-month plan the speaker has put forward. Could US President Bill Clinton's inevitable decision to renew MFN be blocked, even to the point he is forced to wield his veto? To quote Mr Gingrich, the jury truly is out. For now, permanent MFN and Beijing's entry to the World Trade Organisation are frozen firmly on hold. Those who depend on US-Sino trade have far more pressing concerns to worry about.