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China's harasses dissidents, puts trade benefit in doubt

It's generally agreed that the people running China have always played by a different set of rules than everybody else.

But after this past week, you have to wonder if they don't live on a different planet too. That's because with a sense of timing that can only be described as bizarre, China's rulers have once again started harassing some of the country's best-known political dissidents.

It wasn't just the number of dissidents they rounded up for a time during the week _ apparently about a dozen or so _ but that they did it while a top State Department official was visiting China to talk about human rights and renewing its "Most Favored Nation" trade status with the United States.

This is peculiar to say the least, especially when you consider that Secretary of State Warren Christopher is supposed to arrive in Beijing next week to follow up on the trade and human rights talks.

What, you might ask, can these people be thinking of? Don't they realize that arresting and harassing dissidents is going to make it extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, for President Clinton to renew their trade privileges?

Even before the latest troubles began, key members of Congress were saying that China would have to make some dramatic and generous gesture to win their vote on the trade issue. On Friday morning, as the extent of the arrests became clear, Rep. Lee Hamilton, the influential Democrat from Indiana, was predicting that Clinton would have a "major battle" on his hands if he asks for renewed privileges for China.

"If it came up for a vote today," Hamilton predicted, "Congress would vote it down."

This talk about "Most Favored Nation," or MFN, status isn't just a load of Foggy Bottom diplospeak. It's real business.

With MFN status, Beijing can send its products into the American market with the same tariffs as our other trading partners _ a privilege that's allowed China to run up trade surpluses with us of more than $20-billion a year, second only to Japan. Without MFN, Chinese products would be subject to tariffs that would triple or even quadruple their cost and effectively price them out of the market.

With that kind of money on the line, you can only marvel at the fact that they're arresting and harassing people like Wei Jingsheng, China's best-known dissident.

You may remember Wei. The Chinese made a big deal out of it last September when they let him out after 14 years in jail on charges of promoting democracy. They even showed him walking out of prison on television, something very unusual over there.

Well, Wei spent all day in jail Friday before being released early today, and there were two theories to explain it. The first was that the Chinese authorities wanted to warn him and the other dissidents against stirring up trouble before next Thursday's opening of the annual session of the national legislature. But more likely, Wei was picked up because he got together a few days back with John Shattuck, our assistant secretary of state for human rights, and told him Washington should take a tougher line on trade with China.

Shattuck protested the arrest before leaving China for home Friday. But the real U.S. reaction came from the State Department in Washington, where, before Wei's release, a spokeswoman had hinted that Christopher might even cancel his stop in Beijing if Wei and the others weren't released. In fact, several others were released about the same time as Wei.

However this one turns out, President Clinton is going to have a tough time persuading Congress that the Chinese deserve another shot at Most Favored Nation status. On top of all the other problems with Beijing, this business of the arrests is simply too blatant.

If Christopher does get to Beijing at the end of next week, human rights and trade won't be the only ticklish subjects he'll have to tackle. Another is North Korea's nuclear weapons program, a subject I've written on at length.

A team of U.N. experts is now in the process of poking around North Korea's seven declared nuclear installations in what we hope will be an ongoing series inspections to make sure Pyongyang isn't building an atomic bomb or missile warhead.

Whether we actually get that ongoing series of inspections depends, in part, on help from China, North Korea's only real ally. Clinton administration officials hint vaguely that China is really on our side on this, but never say what, exactly, Beijing is doing to help out.

Whatever it is, it's mighty subtle, so subtle you can't even detect it.

If it's not already at the top of the list, helping us out with North Korea is the other big issue Christopher needs to press in Beijing.