THERE are two rather extreme poles of thought in America about how to handle China.
One is that advocated by some businesspeople: ``Let's trade with China, let's invest, let's deal, but it's none of our business how they treat their people, and when we raise the issue, it just makes them mad.'' This is the profits-over-principle approach.
At the other end of the spectrum is the view of many human rights activists, and a fair number of senators and representatives, that China's treatment of its citizens is so bad that we ought to have nothing to do with the Beijing regime until it reforms. This approach includes abandoning most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with China when it comes up for renewal in June. This is the hit-them-in-the-pocketbook-and-they'll-come-round-on-human-rights approach.
Alas, the conduct of foreign policy is rarely so simplistic, and the Clinton administration must find a middle course on China between these positions. It is a course that should continue and encourage United States involvement in China's economic development, but that would still throw the bright spotlight of publicity on China's repression of basic freedoms.
The fact is that economic prosperity and political reform are interconnected. The Beijing regime currently refuses to recognize this. It is busy experimenting with a free-market economy while steadfastly refusing political reform. It is a doomed policy. History proves that economic liberalization and political liberalization go together.
Once economic expectations start rising, as they have in China, it is very difficult to choke them off. When I first went to China in the 1970s, I talked to Chinese citizens who told me their highest aim in life was to acquire a bicycle, a radio, a sewing machine. In a scant 20 years, many Chinese now have black-and-white television sets and are seeking to trade them for color; cordless phones are commonplace; fax machines whirr with messages to families and friends from San Francisco to Singapore.
In top-down economies, government officials make production decisions. But as markets become free, large numbers of people make decisions about what to buy and what to produce. Inevitably, this involvement in the economic process also draws them into the process of political decisionmaking.
Maybe the Beijing regime can resist political reform until Deng Xiaoping passes from the scene, but there is an inevitability about ultimate change in China that will bring to the fore many of the younger Chinese whose views on freedom are perceived as so threatening by the old guard.
So for now, how should the US handle China?
On the one hand, it must deal with the ruling regime. On the other hand, it must speak to the people.
As Secretary of State Warren Christopher found out during his recent visit to Beijing, dealing with the regime can be extremely frustrating. The Chinese rulers coldly rejected Mr. Christopher's importunings to do better on human rights. They dismissed warnings that without such improvement their MFN status with the US is in jeopardy. They flagrantly prevented Christopher from meeting with Chinese dissidents.
Beijing is not making it easy for President Clinton to continue MFN status. But broad economic sanctions - and that is what discontinuation of MFN would be - have a dubious history of effectiveness over the years. Both China and the US stand to gain from a healthy economic relationship. Prosperity in China contributes to the ultimate goal of political liberalization there.
That is no reason for the US to mute its concern over human rights in China. It can encourage boycotts of goods made with slave labor. It can identify with the aspirations of opposition groups. It can help Chinese exiles in the US fighting for freedom. It can drum up public and private support for dissidents detained. It can support human rights groups monitoring the situation in China. It can speak out in international conclaves and at the United Nations. It can enhance US government broadcasting to and about China. We owe nothing less than this to the millions in China who remain unfree.