CHINA has released more than two hundred dissidents it scooped up and jailed for demanding democracy last year. That is good news but we should be under no illusions that it represents a softening, or change of heart, on the part of the hard-liners who presently rule China. Hundreds more dissidents remain behind bars and the only reason the first batch has been released is to curry favor with the United States on the eve of important American trade decisions critical to China.
The Chinese game plan was revealed in a document made public by a diplomat who recently defected from the Chinese embassy in Washington. Summarizing a meeting in Beijing this spring of officials from key Chinese ministries, the document made clear that the release of political prisoners was one of the few ``cards'' the Chinese felt they had to influence US policy toward China. Other cards were the resumption of the Fulbright exchange program, and the acceptance of Peace Corps volunteers in China, both of which the Chinese played last month.
The secret diplomatic paper recognizes the poor state of Sino-Soviet relations. ``The Sino-American relationship,'' it declares, ``has plunged almost to the bottom, as low as it was after the June 4 event.'' (The June 4 event was, of course, the massacre in Tiananmen Square).
Threaded through the paper, and current Chinese actions, is a fear that the US will not renew China's most-favored-nation trading status next month. Not only is there the question of President Bush making up his mind on the issue. Even if he recommends it, a Congress testy with China might block it.
The preferential status permits China to export its goods to the US at low tariffs, between 10 and 25 per cent. If that status were removed, Chinese would face tariffs of up to 90 per cent.
This would cut China's export trade drastically. Some experts say loss of the most-favored-nation status could cost the Chinese about $6 billion a year in lost exports to the US.
The Bush administration has responded with gentle approval but appropriate caution in its reaction to China's release of 211 dissidents. It knows that the Chinese ordered the releases only for pragmatic reasons. It also knows that even those released must tread very cautiously. Some of them have been understandably skittish about talking to reporters ``for fear of being rearrested.''
Nor is there any sign that the Chinese are about to bend on the most famous of dissidents, Fang Lizhi, who is still under protection in the American embassy in Beijing.
All this is slender stuff on which to justify any major American warming to China. It is also disappointing to the Bush administration, which made major overtures to China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in the hope that it could influence the Chinese regime to moderate its harsh, antidemocratic line.
Thus the Chinese are probably in for a tough time of it, especially in Congress.
Dissent and opposition continue to simmer in China. That opposition will get a boost if a floating radio station goes on the air off China's coast, beaming pro-democracy messages across the country. Sponsored by the Federation for Democracy in China, the radio ship would join foreign broadcasters such as the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation in trying to circumvent Chinese jamming. Beijing is extremely sensitive to the project, not even ruling out the threat of force to silence it if it goes on the air. Such action would create a fire storm of protest around the world.
Meanwhile its students in the US are disaffected, according to another document supplied by the defecting Chinese diplomat. Between 70 and 80 per cent of them do not plan to return to China. This is a blow for Beijing; the students dispatched to the US represent the cream of the crop who were destined to revitalize China with modern knowledge.
Finally Taiwan, which had been overshadowed since the international rush to recognize mainland China some years ago, is making striking political and diplomatic gains. It is not supplanting China in the halls of international negotiation, but a number of countries are giving it equal recognition. This is due in part to Taiwan's extraordinary economic strength, in part to its trend towards democratization, and in part to international disaffection with the Beijing regime.