THE deadline for a decision on whether to renew China's most-favored-nation trade status fell on a poignant date. By June 3, a year to the day after Chinese troops began a deadly assault on peaceful demonstrators in Beijing that terrorized millions nationwide, President George Bush had to decide whether to renew China's special trade status with the United States. There were sound reasons for granting a conditional renewal of China's most-favored-nation status, but not for the virtual carte blanche renewal Bush announced last week.
Revocation of most-favored-nation status, which allows Chinese goods to enter the United States at the lowest possible tariffs, is the one sanction Chinese leaders most fear. By granting renewal without explicitly tying it to human rights concerns, the president has reinforced the belief in Beijing that the international cost of brutalizing one's citizens is low.
For a long time now, Washington has failed to give consistent and comprehensible signals to the Chinese leadership. During last spring's protests, the administration never put its ``friend,'' Deng Xiaoping, on notice that use of force on peaceful demonstrators would have serious international consequences.
Shortly after the bloody crackdown Bush announced a number of sanctions, but it was clear long before the Scowcroft-Eagleburger visit in December that the White House did not have its heart in the sanctions, as it granted waivers and refrained from directly criticizing Deng.
Since the crackdown, the political situation in China has continued to deteriorate. Yet in making his announcement last week, the president heralded the ``modest steps'' Beijing has been taking to respond to US concerns.
For most Chinese, these steps are largely cosmetic and inconsequential. Although martial law was lifted in January, new laws were enacted to codify and indefinitely extend many of the martial-law restrictions. And although 211 people involved in the democracy movement were reported released this month, thousands more are said to be languishing in Chinese prisons.
Chinese authorities are about to begin prosecuting and sentencing key figures in the democracy movement, most of whom are expected to receive lengthy prison terms, and untold number of political and religious prisoners have already been secretly executed. Moreover, harassment, surveillance, and intimidation of Chinese continues.
The most damning evidence that the current leadership has not had a change of heart comes from Jiang Zemin, named to replace Zhao Ziyang as head of the Chinese Communist Party during last spring's turmoil. In an interview with ABC's Barbara Walters earlier this month, Jiang cynically dismissed the international outrage over the massacre as ``much ado about nothing.''
Given all this - and the fact there was a sensible alternative to unconditional renewal - Bush's decision is both surprising and disconcerting. It is now up to Congress to give clearer signals to Beijing.
The temptation to slap Beijing by passing legislation to revoke China's special trade status is strong. But a more nuanced approach is the better one if the goal is to improve human rights conditions in China.
Revoking China's special trade status could have dangerous consequences. It would give the China's leaders a scapegoat for the nation's economic mess; hurt Hong Kong, through which many Chinese exports flow; and punish some of the most progressive forces in China, the business people in urban and coastal areas that depend on foreign trade.
Moreover, the United States will have squandered its most important lever without having fully exhausted other levers. When Chinese citizens again take to the streets - as they undoubtedly will, if not in the next few months, then in the next few years - the US will have no big stick to raise to ensure that troops are not again called out to fire on unarmed crowds.
The most sensible course was suggested in early May by Winston Lord, former US ambassador to China, who called for renewal of the most-favored-nation status for one year if, and only if, the US explicitly reaffirms all existing sanctions, allocates more money to the Voice of America to overcome Chinese jamming, and issues a joint tribute in early June ``to the Chinese who demonstrated and died'' in the name of democracy.
In drafting legislation that meets these conditions, Congress should also identify publicly the steps China needs to take for the sanctions to be lifted, and should specify what measures the US will take if the situation in China deteriorates further.
In its tribute to those who died for democracy and to those who continue to suffer under Beijing's boot, Congress would do well to recall the words of Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, who has been unable to leave the US embassy since the crackdown.
``Remember that in the current climate of terror, it may well be that those who are most terrified are those who have just finished killing their fellow human beings,'' Fang said last fall. ``We may be forced to live under terror today, but we have no fear of tomorrow. The murderers, on the other hand, are not only fearful today, they are even more terrified of tomorrow. Thus, we have no reason to lose faith.''