THE Chinese government has suffered through annual debates among American officials and legislators over whether to renew Beijing's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status. Last year, however, President Clinton gave a clear warning: If China didn't make substantial improvements in its behavior on human rights, it would lose MFN standing in June.
Each year Beijing dealt with the Yankees by allowing a few prisoners to leave jail and go home. But this year the regime may be in for a rougher time. As early as last October, John Shattuck, United States assistant secretary of state for Human Rights, gave China the names of 235 dissidents. China's government knew clearly that the human rights conditions of these individuals would be closely linked to continued MFN status. Additionally, more than 50 US senators sent a letter to Communist Party Chairman Jiang Zemin requesting that five of China's best-known political prisoners - Bao Tong, Chen Ziming, Liu Gang, Ren Wanding, and Wang Juntao - be allowed to leave prison for medical care.
Those five men were jailed by the Chinese authorities following the June 4, 1989, crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Mr. Bao and Mr. Ren were each given seven-year sentences, Mr. Liu six, and Mr. Wang and Mr. Chen 13 each.
Why does the Chinese government insist on keeping these men in jail? Can it be merely that they are considered ``black hands'' responsible for the 1989 protest movement? In fact, the June 4 incident merely allowed the Chinese government to find an opportunity to suppress them and thus be rid of its chief political opponents. Bao was sacrificed at the altar of factional strife within the Communist Party, while Ren wouldn't stop finding chances to utter disrespectful remarks. As for Chen, Wang, and Liu, they were ``the most dangerous enemies of the Republic,'' as one jailer told Liu.
Among all the thousands of political prisoners suppressed by the government after June 4, only four or five were jailed under the label of ``political prisoner who plotted subversion,'' and Chen, Wang, and Liu were among these few. They were all important members of the Beijing Social and Ecomomic Sciences Research Institute. Under Chen's leadership, it amassed millions of yuan in funds well before 1989. The power they acquired, the independent, critical attitude they adopted toward the regime, and especially the reasonable and compelling leadership positions they assumed during the pro-democracy movement all made the government dread them. The only thing that saved these people from even longer jail terms was the absence of real evidence of a ``counterrevolutionary clique.''
One of the most obvious - and fatal - characteristics of the Chinese Communist Party is its compulsion to save face at all costs. At the same time, it continues endlessly to commit dark deeds. Since so many prisoners have already been released from jail, why has international pressure not been effective in the cases of these five? The reason: These five are unwilling to ``give face'' to the Chinese government. They refuse to admit their guilt, refuse to admit their wrongs, and now and then even find ways to reveal to the outside world the sordid condition of their prisons.
We should note: All the international pressure and public opinion of the past has failed to force the Chinese government to release a single political prisoner. The previous ``releases'' all hinged on one condition: Those being released had to admit their guilt or wrongs to the government. Then the government would either release them on probation or allow them to leave prison on bail for medical treatment.
Once we understand this characteristic of the Chinese government, we can understand why the government reacted with as much anger as it did when Mr. Shattuck visited Wei Jingsheng, who had only been released on probation. We also can understand why China insists human rights is an internal affair but allows foreign reporters to break precedent and visit Lingyuan prison, where Liu is held captive. And why it objects to the US linking MFN status to human rights and yet continually ``releases'' political prisoners.
Diplomatic talks on human rights between China and the US cannot go on without both sides making compromises. Shattuck's contact with Mr. Wei - who had been forbidden from even publishing articles and meeting with foreign reporters, let alone US officials - simply cost the Chinese government an unacceptable amount of face. China would rather have face than MFN status.
At this critical juncture, two compromises must be made. China needs to defer to the domestic pressure that Mr. Clinton is under, and Clinton needs to play the tune of human rights a little bit softer.
When compromise becomes the only choice, China must release at least one of the aforementioned five critical prisoners. Because they will not admit their guilt, they cannot be released on probation, so releasing them on bail for medical treatment is the only option. And Wang is the worst off in terms of his physical condition. Bao and Ren also have serious illnesses. By releasing at least one of these individuals and other less sensitive prisoners on the 235-name list, China should be able to satisfy the Clinton administration's human rights condition of ``significant progress'' and ensure the extension of MFN status.
One thing is important: The ``release'' of any of the five for medical treatment must be without any admission of guilt or wrong. If the Chinese government is willing to take even this seemingly tiny step, it will in fact be an unprecedented move and a concession of considerable magnitude. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.