FOR a regime that considers "human rights" an incendiary slogan, China's leadership has lately shown a peculiar willingness to take up the concept.Scholars from a leading government think tank plan this fall to investigate human-rights theory and its application in the United States and Canada. The field research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) is the latest sign of a new readiness by China to discuss basic liberties with foreign countries. The academy advises the State Council, China's cabinet. China's leaders, who are embroiled in what they consider to be a dire "ideological struggle" against democratic countries, support the research as a form of "intelligence gathering" within the enemy camp, say Chinese sources. Despite its militant motive, the hands-on investigation will introduce some of China's most influential scholars to persuasive liberal values, say Western scholars and diplomats. "From a cultural, political, and philosophical point of view, the trip would be a breakthrough," says Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York City. The mission by the scholars "will involve them more deeply in dialogue and lead them into having a better understanding of the rationale behind human rights," says Dr. Nathan, who is a China specialist. For many years, China held very limited discussions on human-rights theory and refused to talk about the state of fundamental freedoms at home. The government categorically denounced all foreign concern over the topic as interference in its internal affairs. But last December, Chinese officials met with a top US diplomat in an unprecedented, detailed discussion with the communist government over human-rights abuses in China. Beijing has since approved visits by investigative teams on human rights from several countries. [See article at left for details.] Western scholars and diplomats say the visit by the academy does not signal a turnaround in the hostile official view toward basic freedoms. Beijing continues to accuse foreigners of attempting to use the "bourgeois" concept of human rights as an ideological crowbar for prying China away from socialism and one-party rule. Further still, China has not improved its widespread and flagrant disregard for due process and the right to free speech, political association, and other civil liberties, these observers say. Rather, Beijing has recently picked up the ticklish issue of liberal freedoms in a superficial gesture aimed at appeasing its foreign critics, say the diplomats and scholars. "The Chinese government is feeling a great deal of international pressure" over its violations of human rights since the massacre of liberal activists in June 1989, according to Nathan. Beijing "must respond [to the censure] because it is more integrated in the world economy than ever before," he says. Beijing's conciliatory response apparently conceals a combative motive. China's autocrats have ordered research into the concept of human rights as a way to arm China's communist theorists for ideological battle against democratic countries, say Chinese sources. The CASS investigation was approved last year by the Communist Party's propaganda department, says Hu Weibo at the research division of the institute of law at CASS. The propaganda office is a chief guardian of conservatism and communist orthodoxy. According to the official line, "hostile Western forces" champion human rights in an effort to promote the "peaceful evolution" of China toward capitalism and democracy. 'USING the bourgeoisie's 'human rights' as their banner, [subversives from the West] tout the bourgeoisie's value concept of freedom, democracy, and individualism as they carry out infiltration and corrosion of socialist countries through various guises," according to the official newspaper Guangming Daily. "We should regard opposing and preventing 'peaceful evolution' as a strategic ideological ... task and carry out profound and detailed research in order to formulate ... effective countermeasures," wrote a commentator in the Beijing-based newspaper last month. When criticized by foreigners for its human-rights abuses, Beijing maintains that the human rights espoused abroad are merely a tool used by capitalists to protect their power and to exploit workers. Beijing attempts to defend its repression by saying that before the government allows Chinese to exercise their freedoms, it must ensure the right to life of the country's 1.1 billion population. In other words, Chinese lack freedoms because they lack wealth. As China achieves prosperity, the government will gradually grant Chinese their liberties, according to Beijing. The argument by China's leaders defies a growing worldwide consensus behind international laws that are based on the premise that human rights transcend national boundaries, say the scholars and diplomats. According to this view, a regime cannot justify its disregard for fundamental human rights by pointing to the poverty or peculiar cultural traits of its citizens, they say. China's leadership apparently has an advantage in its struggle to prevent human-rights concepts from taking root at home: The political culture is barren ground for the nurturing of liberal values and institutions, say Western observers. The legacies from Confucianism and radical politics hinder the creation of an indigenous theory on human rights. They also hamper the convergence of Chinese thought with foreign human-rights concepts, Nathan says. During its investigation in North America, the CASS delegation will meet with scholars, human-rights groups, judicial and law enforcement offices, and other bodies, says an officer at the Beijing office of the Ford Foundation. The foundation is considering funding the CASS mission. The trip is the first venture in a broad study by CASS of how citizens in numerous countries view and defend their rights: basic human rights and the rights of minorities, children, and other social groups, according to the officer. The investigation is scheduled for September or October, the officer said on condition of anonymity.