VETERAN Chinese activist Dai Qing recently opted against publicly criticizing a government policy she abhors. She is not alone.
Many, but not all, political dissidents in China are shifting their tactics temporarily as the United States nears a decision on whether to punish Beijing through trade restrictions for its human rights record.
Ms. Dai and others believe that the US should continue to grant most-favored-nation trade (MFN) status to China, contending that rapid economic growth would actually help improve human rights by building up a prosperous middle class. Already, they point out, China's 13 percent annual economic growth has created a stronger demand for information and freedom of speech. Her argument for renewal is similar to that of US businesses staking their future on trade with China.
US insistence that China show ``significant progress'' in improving human rights by June has compelled many who would benefit most from broader human rights - but who support extending MFN - to keep their thoughts to themselves.
In early January, Ms. Dai and eight distinguished professors canceled an unauthorized seminar in Beijing on the controversial Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River that will force 1.2 million people to seek higher ground.
Public security officers made clear they would have obstructed the meeting, and Dai knew Western journalists would have detailed the crackdown overseas.
``We called the meeting a `special seminar' because the government would never allow a protest or a news conference, and we wanted to give it the opportunity to show that human rights have improved,'' she says. ``Ordinarily I would stand up and fight, but these next few months are critical for MFN renewal.
``I'm not willing to say how I was shut up because that will make the government's human rights record look worse,'' she continues. ``In fact, it is worse; I feel dishonest, but my decision was the lesser of two evils.''
Removal of China's MFN status would cost it billions of dollars, since China exports roughly 30 percent to the US.
Another dissident, Li Hai, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 and a signatory of the banned group Peace Charter, which advocates freedom of speech and association, recognizes the contradiction of self-censorship today in hopes of greater freedom of speech tomorrow, but says that US policy leaves him and his colleagues no choice.
``I wouldn't want my actions to promote or obstruct MFN extension. But if I was planning an activity that affected MFN, I would delay it until after June,'' he explains.
To be sure, not all dissidents are silencing themselves. Mr. Li's colleague, Shanghai dissident Yang Zhou, who was recently released from administrative detention for signing the Peace Charter, says that while he supports MFN renewal, abandoning his public activities until after the decision would be ``like surrendering to the government.''
Even though the Clinton administration is clearly looking for ways to extend MFN, few Chinese understand the issues.
The state-run media has always cast the debate as one of national sovereignty, denouncing Washington's attempts to meddle in its internal affairs.
``Most players in the debate are misrepresenting it as cancellation or extension of MFN,'' says Robin Munro, Hong Kong representative of the human rights group, Asia Watch. ``Those are not the only possible outcomes. The United States could employ selective tariffs.''
BUT the US approach also plays in as an all-or-nothing situation. On his four-day trip to China that ended Saturday, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen toed the State Department line saying that China has shown some, but not enough progress, on human rights. He said enough progress by June could obviate an annual review.
At a scheduled meeting between Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Paris yesterday, Mr. Christopher said China had not made enough progress on human rights. ``The Chinese still have to fulfill all the conditions we set,'' he said.
Western diplomats in Beijing admitted the US message is not getting through to all dissidents. ``I think some of their confusion is from mixed signals, because there is not unanimity of views in the US,'' explains one.
While China has not caved in to US pressure, it has responded. During Mr. Bentsen's trip, Beijing announced it will let US officials inspect five prisons accused of exporting goods made by inmates to US markets.
A week earlier, the US and China reached a crucial textile agreement when China acceded to several US demands.
Dissidents and human rights groups agree that the worst-case scenario is the US granting China unconditional MFN status based on a few token prison inspections or dissident releases.
``Our work would be more difficult because it will be open season on religious and political dissidents for the next few years,'' Mr. Munro cautions.