SAN FRANCISCO - A delegation of Chinese business leaders yesterday committed to buying $4.3 billion in U.S. technology, hoping to soften a political backlash to the massive trade imbalance dividing two of the world's economic powers.

The agreements were trumpeted at a ceremony staged two weeks before the scheduled start of government talks in Washington, where leaders will try to tackle the United States' $232 billion trade deficit with China and other prickly issues.

But the event's timing spurred immediate skepticism about the sincerity of China's efforts to narrow a trade gap that has tormented the U.S. for years.

"They are not going to change their ways. This is all part of a political smokescreen," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and the former chief economist for the U.S. International Trade Commission.

To underscore China's resolve to explore more U.S. investments, executives from more than 200 Chinese companies are meeting with their U.S. counterparts in 24 cities scattered across 23 states, said Ma Xiuhong, vice minister of China's Ministry of Commerce.

In its first stop, just north of Silicon Valley's high-tech heartland, the Chinese coalition primarily sealed deals with computer-software, semiconductor and telecommunications firms. The U.S. beneficiaries included high-tech bellwethers Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. *