In Beijing the talks were down to the wire. In the balance: billions of dollars in the textile and apparel trade between the U.S. and China. Chief U.S. negotiator Rita Hayes climbed into a Chinese limo for a key meeting last January and was joined for a 20-minute ride by Stephen Lau, a Hong Kong textile tycoon and self-described adviser to the Chinese.

As an exporter of Chinese goods to the U.S., Lau had a big financial stake in the talks. What gained him his unusual access to Hayes? His political connections may have helped. His American business partner, Tom Nastos...

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