Making Up With China

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Television has made the world a smaller place in 1989. Tune in your television set these days and and you can witness history in the making around the world. Much of the time it is live, happening right in front of you. Most of us have been gripped this year by two extraordinary dramas we saw with our own eyes, now etched in memory. One was the moving attempt, spearheaded by students, to bring freedom to China - an attempt cut down by the brutal massacre of Tiananmen Square. The other was the successful attempt by millions in Eastern Europe to throw off the communist shackles by which they had so long been bound.

In the case of Eastern Europe, the United States has responded positively. As one country after another has moved away from communism, it has been embraced by Washington, encouraged, and helped. To Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who has acceded to all this change in the communist empire, the Bush administration has shown an increasingly friendly face.

In the case of China, after initial hesitation the Bush administration responded negatively to events in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Bush imposed sanctions. He gave sanctuary to Chinese students studying in the US. As a mark of disapproval of China's bloody repression, he cut off all high-level contact with the Chinese.

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Until now.

A mere six months after the event, two top Bush aides have been in Beijing, clinking glasses with the Chinese leaders. One of them, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, said that he and his colleague, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, ``came as friends ... to bring new impetus and vigor into our bilateral relationship and seek new areas of agreement.''

Had there, in the intervening six months, been any change in the Chinese regime's position to warrant such warmth? Had there been any apology, any expression of regret couched in the face-saving mumbo-jumbo that diplomats sometimes use? No. In fact, the Chinese regime had sharply criticized the US for meddling in its affairs and subverting its political system by a strategy of ``peaceful evolution.''

When former President Richard Nixon was in China recently he was outspokenly critical of the tragedy in Tiananmen Square, but urged Chinese leaders to improve their relationship with the US. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was adamant that the US was responsible for the crisis and must take the initiative in repairing the relationship.

Now the US seems to have blinked. In trying to make up to a regime which remains unapologetic for its repression of freedom, the Bush administration seems to have abandoned, or at least diluted, a key principle in American foreign policy. This is that a country's record on human rights does have a bearing on its relationship with the US.

In defending his Chinese initiative, Mr. Bush pointed out that the US has relations with other repressive regimes. True, but the issue of human rights is always a significant theme for discussion, whether the country be a communist one like the Soviet Union, or the right-wing regimes in the Philippines and South Korea that preceded the present incumbents.

We do not know what discussions took place, or what deals may have been made, during the Scowcroft-Eagleburger talks with the Chinese. It would be unthinkable if part of any such deal were the release to the Chinese authorities of dissident Fang Lizhi, presently sheltering in the American embassy in Beijing.

There is nothing wrong with diplomatic dialogue with the Chinese, but we hope the Bush administration is not about to cave in to China's various demands.

Mr. Bush, despite his former China ties, should not feel the need to save face for an unrepentant regime which most Americans find repugnant.

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