LAST Monday's shakeup of the Politburo committee that governs China - stacking it with younger economic reformers - was no surprise. Beijing has been orchestrating hints and leaks about new leadership for months. Still, the scope of the change, which came at the end of the 14th Party Congress, is fairly dramatic. The last hard-liners on the seven member group are out. Market reformers are in - including Zhu Rongji, the former mayor of Shanghai who refused to call in troops during student protests there i n June of 1989.
This does not mean the new committee, picked by aging Deng Xiaoping, will tolerate democratic political reforms. But it does represent a break from the Soviet-style planned economy that hard-liners still support. Mr. Deng's brand of free-market "socialism with a Chinese face" will be in the ascendency for at least five years. These new men, his men, will shape a post-Deng China.
What might that look like? The new reformist coalition believes China must join the world market and compete. A complex market economy will demand new standards of openness in China, new methods of working, more information sharing, more contact with the West. These changes, in turn, will create their own political and cultural strains on a rigid system and on a land that has always been xenophobic. But with this latest move toward moderate Shanghai-style reform, Deng has cast the die.
Japanese Emperor Akihito's symbolic trip to Beijing last week was greeted warmly by China's new leaders who seek more business dealing with Japan.
In the West, all three US presidential candidates have saluted the changes in China. In the first debate they fell over each other praising Beijing's progress - and saying little else. Given China's 20th-century history of war, civil war, invasion, famine, and "cultural revolution," these changes are significant, Tiananmen notwithstanding. Beijing has a $20 billion trade surplus with the US and is creating stock markets.
Yet before the West's enthusiasm for China and its "free" market goes too far, some grim realities must be better understood and made an issue of. Beijing's persecution of intellectuals and scientists in Lingyan prison was condemned last week by 400 US physicists calling for the release of physicist Liu Gang.
But it is China's gulag, its network of prisons and slave labor camps, that the West must now focus on. The gulag is filled with petty thieves and political prisoners who are kept for life. How much of China's $20 billion surplus with the US is built on their blood and tears? The US officially condemns trade in goods produced by slave labor. But there is only one US customs official in Beijing to watch the exports.
It would be instructive to know how many are in China's gulag. Beijing says 2 million. Ex-gulag inhabitants testifying before Congress say 20 million. The State Department says the number is somewhere in between. Is it 5 million? 10 million? That is a lot of pain and injustice - even in a country of a billion people. China has not allowed any Red Cross inspections. This must change.
It is in the interest of China's government to shift to a market economy and make money. It is not in their interest to support freedom of belief and expression.
The next US president must make China's gulag an issue. This won't require destroying the relationship. But it will require strong penalties for unconscionable treatment of human beings. The next US president must welcome China's new leaders into the world community - using Western moral standards, as well as market standards.