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The China issue won't go away

For the moment, U.S.-China relations are off the public's mind. When President Bush told a news conference that he was "disturbed" by news that Beijing authorities had just raised new barriers to students' coming to the United States, the Washington Post did not even bother to report the comment. But this is an issue that will not go away. What happens in that nation of 1-billion people is far too important to ignore for long. And George Bush made China policy a partisan domestic political issue when he rounded up enough Republican senators in January to sustain his veto of a bill providing extended stays in the United States for 40,000 Chinese students worried about their fate at the hands of the regime that crushed the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square last June.

Bush said his decision to handle the students' status by administrative action, rather than legislation, would keep the Chinese from slamming the door on other exchanges.

So far, the Chinese are providing more ammunition for his critics than they are for Bush. While martial law has been lifted in Beijing, arrests continue, peaceful demonstrations are still banned, journalists are still restricted. New rules requiring students to work for five years before applying to continue their educations abroad are so crippling that even Bush called them "counterproductive."

The assumptions underlying the administration's policy were presented more clearly than ever on Feb. 7 when Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger tried to defend the policy before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Eagleburger, who had accompanied National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on the July and December missions to Beijing, was questioned skilfully by three of the committee Democrats, Sens. Joseph Biden, Del., Paul Sarbanes, Md., and John Kerry, Mass.

The approach to China is utterly different from the approach to Eastern Europe, Eagleburger said. There, we lent our moral support and assistance to the pro-democracy forces, like Solidarity, challenging the Communist regimes. In China, we are not betting on demonstrators in the streets, apparently because we doubt those urban workers and students really have mass support in the rural peasantry. Instead, we are betting on elements in the current leadership we hope will someday pursue policies of economic reform.

That makes sense to many China experts from past Democratic as well as Republican administrations with whom I've talked. But it has huge risks. Eagleburger conceded that we have "limited" influence on the power struggles within the Beijing hierarchy. Others, including former Ambassador to China Winston Lord, argue that we are squandering whatever influence we may have. Clearly we are not making points with the pro-democracy students who represent China's future, he said, "and I don't think we strengthen the reformers (within the current leadership) by suggesting that China's leaders can continue repression without paying a price" in their U.S. relations.

The other key point that emerged is that the administration wishes to present its policy as "China-specific," to use Eagleburger's phrase. Eagleburger insisted that it means the leaders of the Kremlin, or any other rulers, should not think we'd be as tolerant of their repression as we've been of the Chinese.

Sarbanes called it "schizophrenic." Kerry said there was a "double-standard" in our Eastern European and Chinese policies. Eagleburger protested, but that is exactly what it is. After hearing him struggle, I doubt that anyone can explain to the American people why we cheered on the demonstrators in Gdansk and Dresden, Prague and Bucharest _ but chose to toast the rulers who crushed the students in Beijing.