WHEN I was in Beijing six weeks ago, identical red posters covered every available foot of wall space and were pasted to the rear windows of all the taxi cabs. In English and Chinese they read, "An Open China Awaits the Olympics." But just how open is China now? Ask Qin Yongmin, a man from Wuhan who was arrested this spring for the "crime" of writing letters to the government and foreign newspapers opposing Beijing's Olympics bid.
With the Clinton administration's renewal of most-favored-nation (MFN) status, China has access to its largest export market guaranteed for another year. China is also a serious contender for the site of 2000 summer Games. Four years after the Army invaded Tiananmen Square and massacred unarmed civilians, the country seems to have shed its pariah image. Unfortunately, the distance between appearance and reality is still wide.
The success of Beijing's latest sales pitch depends on projecting a sanitized image to the International Olympic Committee and the rest if the world. But the red banners proclaiming openness that blanket the capital have little to do with the truth. I asked every cab driver I met whether he wanted to hang the Olympic slogan in his car. The uniform response: "Of course not. I had no choice."
On May 26, after more than 12 years in jail, mostly in solitary confinement, activist and editor Xu Wenli was released by Chinese authorities. A leader in the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s, Mr. Xu had founded an influential underground journal called "April 5th Forum." He was arrested in April 1981 and sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of being a counterrevolutionary. His parole on the eve of President Clinton's decision on MFN may well have tipped the balance in China's favor. Meanw hile, Xu's friend and colleague, Wei Jingsheng, remains imprisoned on the Nanpu New Life Salt Farm, a labor camp outside the city of Tangshan. Mr. Wei, too, was a Democracy Wall editor sentenced to 15 years for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement." A Ministry of Justice official recently reported that Wei was unrepentant and there was no chance of his early release.
By Beijing's accounting, more than 3,000 counterrevolutionaries are in prison. At least two dozen are journalists detained for peaceful expressions of their views, a higher number than any other country in the world.
Historically, freedom of speech has been one of the best indicators of the pace of liberalization in China. The cycle began in the 1957 Hundred Flowers campaign, when Chairman Mao Zedong first invited people to criticize and then promptly locked up those who did. In the reform-minded late 1980s, semi-independent publications, like the "World Economic Herald," "New Observer," and "Economics Weekly" flourished. These three, and many others, were closed in the post-June 4 Tiananmen crackdown. Their writers and editors, many in jail or exile, remain silenced. I visited one woman whose newspaper had been banned and who had spent a year in prison. When I left I saw the two men who stood watch over her apartment. A well-known and respected journalist, she is prevented from publishing within China.
Most recently, the long arm of Beijing stretched all the way to the United Nations. When the Chinese Mission learned that student dissident Shen Tong had been invited to speak by the UN Correspondents Association, it lodged a vehement protest. Bowing to pressure, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali denied Mr. Shen entry to the Secretariat, and the dissident eventually gave his talk to a crowd of journalists outside. It was a vivid replay of last September's incident in Beijing when Chinese authoritie s arrested Shen and expelled his foreign colleagues in order to prevent them from holding a press conference.
Although the political atmosphere has improved greatly since the dark months following the June 1989 crackdown, a propaganda campaign launched this spring targets what the government terms "chaotic" media development. Through new regulations, harsh criticism, and forced closure, authorities are strengthening their control over writers of unauthorized biographies and popular entertainment weeklies and the owners of private newsstands and bookstores.
Despite pretended indifference to criticism on human rights, the regime is acutely sensitive to world opinion, particularly when it imperils economic advances. Tough rhetoric from Mr. Clinton during the campaign and more recently by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Winston Lord no doubt prompted Beijing's latest paroles. Rather than accept China's statements at face value, the international community must continue to measure the distance between what the government would have us believe and wha t we discover to be the truth. It is important, too, that those in China know that the rest of the world can tell the difference.
If pressure on human rights issues eases, China is unlikely to reform on its own. Typically, the government has dealt with internal critics by either ignoring or imprisoning them. This is where outspoken allies abroad can help. One private businessman I spoke to said simply, "The leaders are on top, the people on the bottom. We have to listen to whatever they say, but they never hear what we say."