BEIJING'S arrest of eight political dissidents last week and its detention of perhaps thousands of others present the Clinton administration with a dilemma. Not only is US Secretary of State Warren Christopher set to visit China on Friday, but the detentions clearly violate the conditions of human rights progress set out by the White House last year, when it agreed to continue unrestricted most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with China.
Beijing appears to be signaling a new era in its own status as an economic powerhouse with 1.2 billion consumers, and it is making the point by challenging the world's most powerful nation. The arrest of dissidents on the eve of Mr. Christopher's trip is a message from China's leaders, saying, in effect: The US is dealing with China, a great nation; we will not be dictated to.
Such a message is more than mere bravado. Beijing has calculated that a focus on ``expanding markets'' is at the heart of US foreign policy and that President Clinton will jeopardize neither some $9 billion in US sales to China nor the loss of China's cooperation in Asia over a handful of dissidents.
Beijing is openly calling what it feels is a White House bluff on MFN.
China's detention last week of Wei Jingsheng was a particular slap in the face. Mr. Wei is considered the father of the Chinese democratic movement. The Monitor reported yesterday that while Wei was released last Friday, he has disappeared again under unusual circumstances. High-profile violations of international law, however, are not the only things Westerners should be concerned about; they should not be blinded to the ongoing crackdown in China on freedom of worship, the arrest of religious believers, and Beijing's aggressive new policy banning the growing network of Christian ``home churches.''
We supported suspension of MFN after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. As that event faded, we supported, and still do, a more measured and imaginative series of punitive actions, such as banning state industry (which often uses prison labor) while allowing goods from private industry. In other areas, the White House suspension of satellite sales last year, stopped Beijing's violations of a missile technology regime.
Yet on human rights, the Clinton administration, like its predecessor, has had trouble finding its way. The US position has been to condemn much but do little. Mr. Christopher and his team must find a way to answer China's challenge, yet remain engaged.