AS the United States enters its second of two days of human rights talks with Chinese officials today, it is hard to fathom what frightens the old men who rule China.
It ought to be the specter of depression, which the leaders have fought off with Keynesian methods their economy may not afford much longer, or anarchy at China's borders from breakdown in Russia, mad rulers in North Korea and nuclear rivalry gripping India and Pakistan.
What really makes President Jiang Zemin and his colleagues nervous, however, is political dissent. Not that much exists for a nation of 1.2 billion souls. But horrifying memories of the Cultural Revolution, imposed in the 1960s, prevent vigorous dissent from bubbling up in the 1990s.
And so the latest round of human rights abuses in China comes because a few visionaries decided to start the China Democracy Party.
Between that and some trade-union organizing, about 100 people have been arrested, some swiftly convicted and sentenced.
Compared with human rights abuses elsewhere or in China's past, this is mild stuff. China is a Communist dictatorship; suppression is expected. This does not diminish the idealism or heroism of the democratic organizers, who know the risks.
Now that the United States and China have resumed human rights talks after a four-year lapse, the United States should press for freedom of religion for Tibetans and Christians, and hold China to its professions of good intent. Beijing needs to know the price of relapse.
But this does not require holding China to a higher standard than the United States held allies throughout the Cold War, at the cost of major U.S. interests.
Chief of these are maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait and curbing weapons proliferation. China's entry into the World Trade Organization should be determined by its willingness to conform to WTO rules but not be made a carrot for political reform.
With the rampant capitalism encouraged by Beijing, most of China no longer thinks as a Communist populace should. Individualism is tolerated; political indifference is rampant; the cult of Mao is largely forgotten. Only open opposition remains forbidden.
How much longer, no one knows. Entrepreneurship created an unstoppable demand for democracy in Taiwan and South Korea. This must be on Beijing rulers' minds.
The clamping of the lid in China is familiar and sad, but temporary. There are too many Chinese, with too many ideas, to be silenced long. This, too, will pass.
Pub Date: 1/12/99