President Clinton's request to extend normal trading relations with China and the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre happen to fall on successive days this week. Logically, they're not connected, but in the present turmoil surrounding US-Chinese relations, they're paired in more ways than placement on the calendar.
The president's desire to maintain normal trade ties with China, free of tariff barriers that would choke off commerce, is sensible. His request should be approved by Congress - as should China's entry into the World Trade Organization this year.
True, NATO's inadvertent bombing of Beijing's embassy in Belgrade and the release of a congressional report detailing Chinese espionage in the US have soured relations. But the economic dynamic between the two countries should be sustained - not solely, or even primarily, for reasons of profit. The biggest payoff is China's integration into the world economy, which will encourage its political as well as financial evolution.
This question of change in China draws in the Tiananmen anniversary. The events on that square 10 years ago today stick in the mind, testifying to a regime violently resistant to concepts of freedom and participatory government. Hundreds of idealistic people, peacefully demonstrating for democracy, died as an old-line, insecure Communist hierarchy sent troops and tanks against them.
That horror is officially suppressed but not forgotten in China. More than 100 relatives of the murdered students petitioned China's courts this week to open criminal investigations of those responsible for ordering the crackdown. That plea, though unlikely to get a fair hearing inside China, helps maintain Tiananmen Square as a marker in modern Chinese history.
How far has the country traveled since then?
Li Peng, the high official who justified the crackdown is in an even higher post now, second in command in the Communist Party. Yet others in the current leadership, notably Premier Zhu Rongji, are known to be reformist in temperament, open to a degree of political change.
The party still pursues anyone who challenges it, as arrests this week of people associated with the cause of democracy, who might try to observe the Tiananmen anniversary, attest. Officials also blocked access to foreign news coverage of the anniversary.
Yet China is changing. At some point, it will shed communism. But the process will have tensions - heightened by Beijing's clear intent to enhance the power and range of its nuclear weapons.
The Clinton formulation of a "strategic partnership" with China has been jettisoned. But engagement - clear-eyed and persistent - remains the best policy. That means moving ahead on important fronts like trade, while keeping in mind Tiananmen's lessons.