WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton promised on Tuesday to protest to China's leaders about a ``highly objectionable'' decision to withdraw visas for three Radio Free Asia employees who were to cover his tour.

Clinton, who is to leave for China on Wednesday with a delegation of hundreds, decried the visa withdrawal as a counterproductive move by Chinese authorities just as they were showing a willingness to be more open.

``We hope they will reconsider it,'' Clinton told reporters at the White House. ``I think it's a highly objectionable decision.

``This decision ... is depriving China of the credit that it otherwise would have gotten for giving more visas to a more diverse group of journalists, and allowing more different kinds of people in there than they've ever done before,'' Clinton said.

Both the White House and Radio Free Asia held out hope that the decision could be reversed in time for the three to keep their assignments.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Clinton would bring up the issue in his meeting with Chinese President Jiang Zemin as part of discussions on ``individual freedoms.''

Radio Free Asia broadcasts to China in Chinese and has upset officials there with its reports on human rights abuses and other issues. It is funded by the U.S. government.

McCurry said there could be other incidents on the trip in which American-style freedoms clash with China's strict rule.

``People who travel there sometimes encounter the nature of a government that has a very strong and firm security apparatus. I wouldn't rule out we'll see some of that on this trip. I'm not predicting that, and certainly I'm not hoping for that, but I wouldn't be surprised at that,'' he said.

Cathay Pacific, the airline chartered for the roughly 350-member American press corps covering Clinton, told the White House that it would not board any passenger without a valid visa. The three RFA employees were not on board when the flight left Tuesday afternoon.

The three banned by the communist government are Arin Basu, a diplomatic reporter for the broadcast agency; Patricia Hindman, a technician and producer, and Feng Xiao Ming, a broadcaster.

They were telephoned Saturday afternoon by the Chinese Embassy and told their visas had been canceled. Later, in a formal letter, the Chinese government said they were turned down because they worked for Radio Free Asia.

Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton will leave Wednesday, accompanied by an official delegation of 47, including six members of Congress: Sens. Max Baucus, Jay Rockefeller and Daniel Akaka and Reps. John Dingell, Lee Hamilton and Edward Markey.

Also with Clinton are U.S. Ambassador James Sasser; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin; Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; Commerce Secretary William Daley, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky; White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles; deputy chief of staff John Podesta; deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey; Peace Corps director Mark Gearan and Nancy Hernreich, one of Clinton's two personal secretaries.

About 600 other people will make the trip, mostly officials and additional support staff traveling separately from Clinton on four planes. All told, the president's entourage is in the range of 1,000 people, far more than the 300 that accompanied President Nixon to China in 1972.

Plus, there will be several large C-141 military transport planes hauling items such as 60 tons of communications gear, 10 armored limousines, bottled water and the ``Blue Goose,'' Clinton's bulletproof lectern.