Making Sense of A Peevish China

IN recent weeks, the communist regime in Beijing has been behaving in an increasingly testy manner:

* In the face of rather modest democratic reforms in Hong Kong in the waning days of British rule, Beijing has delivered itself of a tantrum and announced it will dismantle Hong Kong's government when it takes over control in 1997. This despite its commitment to maintain Hong Kong's capitalist economy and a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the takeover.

* There has been another paroxysm in Beijing over even more modest overtures by the United States to Taiwan. Although Washington recognizes Beijing as the capital of all China, including Taiwan, it has decided to warm up official ties with the officially unrecognized island state. This is hardly provocative policy; Taiwan is immensely important to the US economically, and now some American officials can visit there and some Taiwanese government officials can come to the US. Beijing is nonetheless in a fury about it.

* If President Clinton expected a little gratitude from Beijing for extending China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status with the US, he must be disappointed. The president had warned there must be progress on human rights before he would continue MFN. But in the absence of any human rights momentum, he backed down and renewed MFN anyway. Far from being publicly appreciative, the Chinese regime has continued its repression and restriction of dissidents who challenge its rule.

It is in this area of human rights that China has remained most obdurate.

Even as a delegation of American businessmen led by Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown arrived to cut multimillion-dollar deals with China, the Beijing regime cracked down anew on protesters and pro-democracy groups. Mr. Brown was largely silent on the issue.

Meanwhile, reports persist of Chinese torture and ill-treatment of the local inhabitants of Tibet. And the Puebla Institute, a Washington-based lay Roman Catholic human rights group, continues to document repression of Christians in China.

In an extraordinary example of inhumanity and public relations ineptitude, the regime barred Fang Zheng, its national champion discus thrower among disabled athletes, from competing in an international competition. The origin of his disability apparently was embarrassing to the ruling party; he lost his legs in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when an army tank plowed into a group of protesting students and ran over him.

What is the reason for this accumulation of testy and inhumane actions by the Beijing regime? Is it simply an arrogant conviction that the Chinese Communists can transgress civilized norms without concern for the views of the outside world?

Is it the result of a deep-rooted political contest between hard-liners and would-be reformers - with the hard-liners presently calling the shots and the reformers keeping their heads down?

In the case of the bellicose pronouncements against the US, are they a deliberate attempt to insult Mr. Clinton? (At least one highly-placed American official with excellent intelligence sources believes they are).

These are two of the scenarios that Washington officials are putting forth and debating as they seek to understand China's recent actions and decide what US reaction should be.

For the Clinton administration, recent Chinese policy presents a seeming dilemma. Should the US seek to capitalize on China's booming economy through trade and investment? Or should the need for progress on human rights in China be emphasized?

The dilemma is not so much of a dilemma as it might first appear. American participation in a burgeoning Chinese economy is in both the US interest and the long-range interest of the Chinese people. But that is no reason to mute American concerns over the abuse of human rights in China, which should continue to be voiced by the US government and concerned Americans.

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