China, worried about economic sanctions and a growing bilateral trade surplus, is sending its largest-ever import mission to the United States and is telling its foreign-trade agencies to buy American, officials said Tuesday.

"This will be the biggest group we have sent," said Sun Zhenyu, deputy director of the Americas department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations. "We want to demonstrate how eager we are to improve our imports."The delegation, numbering up to 300 during the 20-day mission, will leave later this month and visit Washington, New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Its members include national, provincial and local trade and business officials.

Sun and delegation leader Wang Runsheng, a former MOFERT deputy minister, acknowledged a primary objective is to ease criticism in the U.S. Congress of China's rising exports to the U.S. market and shrinking imports of American products.

They also acknowledged the continued sanctions imposed on China since the government crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in June 1989. The Bush administration suspended high-level visits, military cooperation and most new lending to China.

"This fully puts our priorities on imports from the United States," said Wang, currently a member of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's nominal parliament.

Sun said delegation members hoped to negotiate several hundred million dollars' worth of purchases, and indicated the government was encouraging provincial trade agencies to buy U.S. products.

"If left on their own, they might buy from Europe or Japan, but we are putting emphasis on telling them to organize purchases from American businesses," he said. "We must try to do something to correct this state of affairs."

The officials said delegation members planned also to meet with members of Congress to discuss China's most-favored-nation trade status, which guarantees preferential tariff treatment for Chinese exports to the United States.

President Bush earlier this year recertified China for MFN, but Congress has considered revoking it over human rights concerns.

According to U.S. figures, China sold $12 billion in exports to the United States last year, while buying about $6 billion of American goods. Beijing has much lower figures, but fails to include exports shipped through Hong Kong to the U.S. market.

China's exports continued to rise in the first half of this year, while imports declined 15 percent, due to a combination of the sanctions, a Chinese government austerity program and the devaluation last December of the Chinese currency.

The officials said the delegation was going at the invitation of the U.S.-China Business Council and would look to buy grain, cotton, timber, machinery and advanced technology products.