AS WORD SPREAD of yesterday's historic vote by the US Congress to normalise trading rights with China, signs of rare unity abounded across Washington. Lobbyists were giving each other high-fives in the corridors of the Capitol Building; Republican and Democrat Congressmen shared a podium to stress the importance of exporting 'American values' to China. For China's dissident communities in both the mainland and the US, it has proved a far more bruising battle. A key weapon for Corporate America's US$15 million (about HK$116 million) lobbying juggernaut has been testimony from certain dissidents outlining the damage free trade can do to the Communist Party's grip on power. Within hours of statements being received in Washington, they are wrapped into glossy folders and spread across Capitol Hill. 'Members of Congress,' one circulated this week exclaims, 'hear the call of the China Democracy Party from its home base in Hangzhou, to support human rights and the rule of law by approving PNTR. DO NOT DESERT THESE PEOPLE! THEY CALL FOR PNTR!' It is a far from unified message, however. The vote's sweeping implications for Sino-US relations is deepening long-standing generational and ideological splits within dissident groups in both nations. Standing firm against the vote and the end of the annual fight for trade rights are dissidents Wei Jingsheng, Harry Wu Hongda and labour activist Han Dongfang, and several prominent Tibetan and dissident labour groups. In the yes camp sit Tiananmen hero Wang Dan, Bao Tong, a former adviser to deposed reformist Premier Zhao Ziyang, environmentalist Dai Qing and other groups, echoing a line similar to the White House - that open markets can only drive reform. 'It is a very tense and unfortunate situation,' one Western human rights worker said. 'It's great that there is all this debate and all these comments coming from inside and outside China . . . but it is getting to be like a three-ring circus. People who normally don't give a damn are wheeling out their favourite dissident, and I fear their overall message is being lost in the manipulation.' The famously blunt-talking Wei Jingsheng has been virtually a permanent fixture on Capitol Hill over the past few weeks as he knocks on dozens of congressmen's doors daily. He has been honing in on wavering members with grim warnings about perpetuating Communist Party rule with a 'historic blunder'. Mr Wei, the figure who proposed political change as the 'Fifth Modernisation' on Beijing's Democracy Wall in 1978, knows the value of US intervention. After 18 years in mainland prisons for political offences, he was released for a second time in 1997, partly as a result of steady pressure from Washington. He now lives in New York, happy to tread a different path from his younger peers. 'I am watching a lot of people starting to bend in the wind,' he said in a brief break between lobbying stops. 'I am letting people know that I am not one of them. I will stand firm.' His message is clear. You cannot expect reasonable behaviour from communists. They only react to pressure. PNTR is something the Beijing leadership desperately wanted and removing the leverage of an annual debate in Congress would set progress back, he said. Of his peers on the other side, Mr Wei tries to be polite. 'I don't want to criticise them. They are like children who have been kidnapped by bad guys. You cannot simply believe what they say. Businessmen don't care about human rights, they care about money. Let's get that straight. That is OK. They can care only about money if they want, but when they try to say it will bring human rights, then it's something else. Maybe they will learn the hard way.' Mr Wei talks with a thinly-veiled bitterness about aspects of the American political system. He always understood it had its pros and cons, but he is learning more lessons. He talks of disappointment at the diplomacy of President Bill Clinton. 'One of the shortcomings I have noticed is that when a president comes to the end of his term, he acts differently. He really doesn't care about anything.' Now the House of Representatives vote is over, Mr Wei and other groups are re-doubling their efforts ahead of the Senate vote in early June. 'When I talk to some congressmen who say they are in favour, I watch them closely. I can tell they really don't believe what they are saying. I look into their eyes and I can see they are not comfortable. I will not be giving up.' A key target for many activists on both sides of the fence is a proposed side law geared to ensuring Congress still has some sort of annual review of the human rights situation in China. The final bill includes a bipartisan plan to create an annual commission involving members of Congress and the administration. It is weaker than many activists had hoped for. There is no firm reporting requirement or schedule of possible recommendations. Some fear it is a fig leaf providing political 'cover' for a yes vote. And it is not yet clear if the proposals will survive the Senate. 'The president and Congress should agree on steps to make this commission truly meaningful and effective if it's to replace the annual trade debate,' Human Rights Watch Asia said in a statement yesterday. 'Under Clinton, human rights have fallen lower on the US agenda. The administration is focused mainly on trade, which it is now promoting as human rights policy. But trade alone is insufficient to guarantee change. We need a strong, bipartisan commission to counter this trend.' Mr Wei watched the earnest young men and women of Capitol Hill bustle past in trim suits. He happily insisted he was not about to change his views. 'Teeth,' he said. 'All these plans have no teeth. Beijing will laugh at them.'