4/26/2006 BEIJING (AP) -- Chinese citizens received the highest number of U.S. visas on record last year as China's economic power expanded, a U.S. Embassy official said last week. The number of U.S. visas granted to Chinese had fallen sharply with tighter security screening after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, but rebounded in the following years.

Last year, the United States issued 304,374 nonimmigrant visas to Chinese tourists, students and others, a 29 percent increase over 2004, said Michael Regan, the U.S. consul general in charge of visas. Chinese citizens "have more and more legitimate reasons both to travel for business and tourism, and (as) students," Regan said in an interview.

The announcement came as Chinese President Hu Jintao met President Bush in Washington amid soaring trade and investment ties between the two countries. Regan said the number of visas issued to Chinese in 2005 was probably the highest ever, though he couldn't be sure about much earlier periods due to a lack of records. The previous recorded high was 279,489 in 2000, he said. "I would be pretty confident saying this is the most we've issued," he said. "Although I don't know what happened in the 1890's."

The number of visa applications by Chinese is growing by about 15 percent a year, Regan said, suggesting that this year could set another record. "I anticipate it will continue at least that rate for the foreseeable future," he said. "That, I think, is basically a reflection of the growing economy here and the growing ties between our two countries." Regan dismissed the possibility that the increase in Chinese visitors would boost illegal immigration.

There are about 39,000 Chinese in the United States who have been rejected for immigration but whom Beijing refuses to accept, citing uncertainty about their identities. Washington and Beijing are negotiating a deal that could lead to their repatriation.

(By ALEXA OLESEN Associated Press Writer)