SECRETARY of State Warren Christopher's trip to Beijing is painfully reminiscent of Western officials kowtowing to the dowager Chinese empress of the 19th century, begging for trade concessions. Only this time, it's the West that is offering trade privileges. And all we're begging for is a baby step forward in human rights for the people of China.
If the last two months are any guide, the United States government must take care not to exacerbate Chinese beliefs that the US is backing down.
Almost a year ago, President Clinton made bold proclamations about the importance of human rights in China. Most-favored-nation (MFN) status required modest improvement in emigration and forced working conditions by the Chinese.
That was then. Now we are down to offering carrots in exchange for mere commitments of human rights change.
Meanwhile the following sorry record progresses:
* The January arrest of Catholic bishop Su Zhi Ming while Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bensten was in Beijing.
* The recent arrest of prominent Democracy Wall dissident Wei Jingsheng while Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck was in China.
* The arrest of Tiananmen leader Wang Dan and other dissidents just days before Mr. Christopher's visit.
* A new report in the National Journal of continued brutality in the Chinese prison system including the selling of body parts for transplant from executed prisoners.
This is not a Chinese government that doesn't get the message. This is a government that doesn't care.
Beijing is betting that American greed will win out over American principles. And they may be right.
That's bad news for people like Liu Gang, a Tiananmen leader who is now in detention in the Lingyuan No. 2 Labor Reform Detachment. In spite of Chinese laws providing for medical parole and family visits, Mr. Liu languishes in the Chinese gulag seriously ill. Guards said last year that prison visits by Liu's family were ``not good for his reform'' and led to ``rumors'' about his condition. Western journalists have been allowed to see him but not to speak.
It's also bad news for people like Bishop Su, 62, who suffered 15 years imprisonment and severe beatings for his faith. He was interrogated for nine days after celebrating mass with Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey in January.
Other Christians are now suffering from a new ``Chinese Crackdown'' decreed by Premier Li Peng on Jan. 31, outlawing house churches and proscribing contact with foreign Christians. Three Americans were arrested in February in accord with this new religious law. The recent murder of an underground preacher in Hubei province and other imprisonments stem from these harsh rules.
Besides withholding MFN, what other options do we have with the Chinese government? One is the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with China on prison labor. In spite of efforts by the US Customs Service to tighten the agreement, ``the accord is worthless,'' according to Harry Wu, author of ``Bitter Winds: A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag.'' Years after US Customs made initial requests to visit various prisons, the Chinese are taking credit for promising again to allow the visits. American officials will be allowed ``to take guided tours of a few camps, but these surely will be model camps - Potemkin villages,'' according to Mr. Wu.
Pro-business advocates suggest using international tools that have highly dubious leverage with Beijing, such as the World Bank or the United Nations Human Rights Commission. The World Bank reduced its loans to China after the 1992 Tiananmen Square riots, but since then, China has become the World Bank's leading borrower.
A few critics even place faith in the UN Human Rights Commission. They overlook the fact that this was the same Commission that denied the Dalai Lama the opportunity to address the UN Human Rights Conference in Vienna last year due to Chinese pressure.
The truth is that China is not making ``overall, significant progress'' in the ``modest'' requirements for MFN renewal. It has made only half-hearted gestures: releasing a few prisoners while giving only verbal promises of tightening the MOU, negotiating with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and releasing well-known dissidents. Token pledges.
The Chinese have proved that they only respond to pressure when in hurts. The US represents nearly 40 percent of the export market. The Chinese desperately wanted the Olympics and released their most prominent Democracy Wall prisoner, Mr. Wei, to help their chances -
a whole six months before the end of his 15-year sentence. Wei recently told the Associated Press that the ``United States should wait for China to make human rights improvements a long-term thing, and then gradually lift sanctions.''
Mr. Clinton must keep his word and revoke MFN until real progress is made. Fang Lizhi, the Chinese dissident who sought asylum in the US Embassy after Tiananmen Square, wrote in the Los Angeles Times on March 16: ``What is at stake today is ... the credibility of the West in defending the values that are the essence of its leadership role on the world stage.''
As Wei Jingsheng said, ``If you retreat, you lose.'' And he should know - because he, Liu Gang, and Bishop Su will be the real losers.