HOW serious is the Clinton administration about pressing China on human rights? Two important decisions are before US agencies in the next few weeks:
* The White House and State Department will decide how hard to push for a resolution condemning China's rights record at next month's session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. At last year's commission session, Washington pressed hard and came within a vote of winning. This year, rights advocates say, there is a good chance to win - but only if President Clinton decides now to give this high priority. Beijing is already working to avert the vote.
* The United States Export-Import Bank will decide soon whether to give Beijing export credits for the vast new Three Gorges Dam. This project requires the relocation of 1 million people, as well as irreversible changes in the area's ecology. The National Security Council has concluded, based on economic and environmental concerns, that Ex-Im should not provide the credits, but there is a chance the bank may do so anyway. Will Mr. Clinton urge it to condition credits on verifiable guarantees for human rights and environmental protection?
These latest decisions on China come at a time of apparently increased repression inside the world's most populous nation. In October, a state-run radio in the province of Wuhan gloated openly that 42 opponents of the Three Gorges dam had been sentenced to between two and 20 years in prison. In November, Beijing formally announced that famous dissident Wei Jingsheng, who went ''missing'' in April 1994, was in official custody. And Human Rights Watch's shocking revelations about abuses inside Chinese orphanages that resulted in thousands of needless deaths? The brother and several allies of Zhang Shuyun, the doctor who blew the whistle on the abuses, have been imprisoned. Throughout China, prison sentences and ''re-education through labor'' are more frequently imposed on pro-democracy activists.
In Chinese-occupied Tibet, conditions worsened throughout 1995. The boy named by the Dalai Lama as the new Panchen Lama ''disappeared,'' and the occupation authorities named their own alternative. Hundreds of Tibetans who protested the disappearance were detained. The authorities imposed new caps on recruitment into religious institutions and new restrictions on tourists.
Over the years, the Clinton administration has worked to keep discussions of human rights in China firmly on a separate track from the trade discussions that Beijing really cares about. Some administration spokesmen have likened this approach to the ''constructive engagement'' that (some say) helped bring democracy to South Africa. But there are many differences; not least, throughout the period of ''constructive engagement,'' South Africa was subject to stringent UN-imposed trade sanctions.
China is subject to no such sanctions - nor even (yet) to any serious degree of censure by the Human Rights Commission. The Security Council, in which China holds a veto, will never impose sanctions on Beijing similar to those on South Africa. The standards for basic decency in the regime's behavior will have to be set by individual governments, firms, and financial institutions.
The US is in a strong position to lead this effort. The first indicators will be its decisions on mobilizing support for the Human Rights Commission vote and on the export credits. And given the failure of constructive engagement to date, by the time China's most-favored-nation status comes up for renewal in June, we should see Clinton explicitly linking any extension to concrete rights improvements. Around the world, and especially in China, supporters of human rights and democracy will be watching.