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What China wants, China gets at the cost of a prisoner or two

Any way you figure it, the Chinese have a truly slick game they're playing. You really have to hand it to them.

The game, in case you've missed it, is that whenever the Chinese government wants something really special from the United States, it releases a political prisoner. Beijing wants some new trade concessions? Or a summit visit by President Clinton? It releases a political prisoner and Washington delivers the goods.

Earlier this month, China released Wang Dan, a leader of the pro-democracy uprisings in Beijing's Tiananmen Square nine years ago. That was to smooth the way for this week's talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and next month's summit visit to Beijing by President Clinton.

Last year's prisoner release of note involved Wei Jingsheng, who spent 18 years in jail for the crime of speaking his mind about democracy. Among other things, Wei's release was the payoff for a smooth visit to Washington last fall by President Jiang Zemin, the first such visit by a Chinese leader in 12 years. It also made it possible for the Clinton administration to justify its decision to back away from criticizing Chinese policies before a United Nations human rights commission.

There are several points to keep in mind here. The first point is that China doesn't simply release political prisoners; it sends them into exile so they can't hang around and cause trouble. In that sense, Beijing is doing itself a favor, not furthering the cause of human rights.

Another thing to remember is that China already has about 2,000 or so political prisoners and seems to arrest four new ones for every one it lets go. So while Wang was in Detroit and New York giving interviews this past week, the government arrested at least five others back home on purely political charges.

At that rate, China should have enough political hostages it can release to keep American policymakers off its back for a very long time. Maybe forever.

To her credit, Albright talks tough about this every once in a while. She did it the other day when she told an audience in Tokyo that Beijing needed to do more than just release a lone political prisoner now and then. Reportedly, Albright planned to give the Chinese a list of at least 30 additional political prisoners she wanted set free before Clinton's summit visit next month.

To her debit, Albright's tough talk hardly ever seems to result in concrete action. No one, least of all the Chinese, seriously thinks Clinton would call off the Beijing visit if China refused to release any more prisoners.

It's no surprise then that skeptics are wondering if the secretary's bluster is intended not so much as a prelude to action, but as a substitute for it.

If so, the Chinese seem to be onto the ploy. Every time she or other Clinton administration officials have something unpleasant to say, the Chinese simply sit back and listen, then go about their business as if nothing had happened.

And this seems to be the pattern not only with political prisoners and human rights, but with a host of other contentious issues between Washington and Beijing.

One of the big ones the Clinton administration doesn't like to talk about much anymore concerns what's known as "intellectual property rights." Don't be fooled by the high-sounding title. This includes the rights to reproduce and sell things such as American rock music and popular movies.

But despite a supposedly ironclad treaty and numerous side agreements designed to protect U.S. producers, the Chinese keep on copying and selling pirate copies of our pop music, movies and home computer programs and depriving the producers of billions of dollars in revenues. It turns out, for example, that the Chinese could see the movie Titanic on video cassette and video CD before it was released in the theaters in the United States.

And so far, Washington hasn't done anything serious _ beyond tough-sounding talk _ to stop this.

The Chinese don't seem to be any more responsive when it comes to things such as weapons of mass destruction and the technology to produce them. U.S. intelligence has been monitoring repeated Chinese shipments of missiles and missile technology to both Pakistan and Iran. Chinese companies linked to the defense ministry have also been monitored selling chemical weapons materials to Tehran.

Despite repeated Chinese denials _ or promises to stop doing what they don't admit doing in the first place _ the controversial Chinese shipments have continued.

America protests behind the scenes; the Chinese listen, then go about their business secure in the knowledge that the next time it happens, they can deny and promise yet again.

As previously noted, they've got themselves one neat game going here.

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