One thing is clear in the controversy over Chinese-American relations in the realm of human rights. As in formerly repressive countries like South Africa, whatever happens to rights in China depends more on internal than external developments.
A recognition of this does not absolve the US or any other nation from making plain its own position on human rights. President Clinton appears to be less clear now than when he was campaigning for his first term.
Still, after returning from China recently, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said human rights was a significant topic of discussion with officials there. He went so far as to add that the US and China could not reach the full potential of their relationship until they have an understanding on the subject.
All pretty mild-sounding to Americans who want their country to put its mouth where its money is and speak out for international standards of human rights as a condition of trade. They don't feel it's enough to ask US businesses to seek such standards from their Chinese counterparts.
On a smaller scale, Washington went through cycles of distancing and "engagement" in apartheid-torn South Africa. At least it banned arms sales. Americans argued whether they could have more positive influence by disinvesting or hanging onto stocks of companies doing business there. Some companies signed on to the "Sullivan principles" for observing rights within workplaces surrounded by discrimination.
Eventually the climate was such that South Africans of good faith, black and white, could join forces for reform.
Massive China will find its own way of changing when it becomes convinced, sooner or later, that change is necessary.
Massive China will find its own way to change when convinced change is necessary.