HOW do you best help the students and others in China who want a more democratic society? By isolating the current regime, letting it know that the crackdown of last June did in fact sever important links to the West? Or by repairing ties to Beijing in the hope that open lines of communication make it possible, at least, to influence future policies and actions?
If such questions didn't have a leading role in the Bush administration decision to drop its ban on high-level contacts with the Chinese government, they should have. Human rights are central to current US-China relations, not a sideshow to big-power geopolitics.
In response to critics, President Bush asserts he'll do nothing to hurt the Chinese people. He apparently believes the diplomatic process begun by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger - like Mr. Bush, old China hands involved in the diplomatic opening of the '70s - could help prevent further crackdowns. But he hasn't adequately explained how.
Chinese authorities, meanwhile, maintain they acted last June in righteous defense of their society. They welcome, of course, Washington's move away from Tiananmen Square sanctions.
The American envoys' goal, ostensibly, was to provide a US interpretation of what happened in Malta. This is in line with the geopolitical and strategic reasoning usually invoked by the administration to justify a soft tread around China. Such reasoning makes sense to a point. But history may have taken us beyond that point.
With the Soviet Union in turmoil and the East bloc cracking before our eyes, old thinking about balancing China against Russia - playing the ``China card'' - is largely irrelevant.
Perhaps the very size and potential of China make resumption of closer diplomatic relations desirable. China has a hand in regional conflicts the US would like to see resolved. Will last week's trip eventually help bring about a settlement in Cambodia, for example?
All such concerns pale beside the attack on human rights and decent government unleashed by Deng Xiaoping and Company last June. And the repression continues.
Can Mr. Bush justify the Scowcroft-Eagleburger mission on the basis of what it may ultimately do to open the way for democratic expression? If he can't convincingly do so, the trip shouldn't have been taken.