IS there a deal? Is China's ruling regime about to trade some significant new reform, some major liberalization of its hard-line position, in return for the high-level recognition just accorded it by the Bush administration?
American spokesmen are acting coyly about such a prospect. ``Let's wait and see,'' says chief of staff John Sununu.
Henry Kissinger says he did not know President Bush was sending national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to China. But the careful precision of Mr. Kissinger's language often hides state secrets of considerable import. Perhaps he did not know the mission was about to go, but he had himself been recently in China and talked with Chinese officials. Did Mr. Kissinger set up the scenario for such a visit, without knowing the mission's specifics?
What about Richard Nixon? He too had been recently in China and undoubtedly briefed the White House on his return.
Did Kissinger and Nixon get any advance commitment from the Chinese on what concessions they might make following a Bush overture? Did Scowcroft and Eagleburger get any such commitments underlined in their own discussions?
If the answer is ``no,'' what could have induced Mr. Bush to take such a politically dangerous gamble? He has identified his administration with an aged regime in Beijing, divided and fading in its influence, and alienated from the Chinese people.
If the answer is ``yes,'' what is the timetable for a Chinese response?
That is an important factor given the firestorm that has broken out over Bush's initiative. The American Congress returns to Washington in January, and Democrats think they might be able to use the China initiative to embarrass Bush. Some Republicans are critical too. In the absence a Chinese response, Congress will likely seize the initiative and implementing mandatory sanctions on China for its hard line on human rights.
So far, the Chinese leaders have not come up with very much in return for the pictures of Scowcroft and Eagleburger toasting them so cordially.
They have announced they will stop sales of ballistic missiles to the Middle East, but this is merely a repeat of earlier promises.
They have announced they will permit a replacement Voice of America correspondent in Beijing for the one they expelled during the Tiananmen Square massacre. But there is no hint of any liberalization for the domestic Chinese press. Indeed, Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin recently delivered a sweeping attack on press freedom. ``Our country's newspapers, radio and television,'' Jiang said, ``are the mouthpiece of the party, the government and the people. In the new period, news reporting must serve socialism and serve the people.''
Jiang charged that some news organizations ``not only failed to expose and criticize bourgeois liberalization during the counterrevolutionary turmoil and rebellion, but even provided a public-opinion base for plotters and supporters, fanning the flames of the turmoil ... and creating ideological chaos among the masses.''
Probably the litmus test of any new Chinese thinking would be the regime's attitude to Fang Lizhi, the dissident presently taking refuge in the American embassy in Beijing.
The Chinese have insisted that Mr. Fang be handed over to them for trial. The Americans have steadfastly refused. If the Chinese were prepared to let Fang leave the country for asylum in the US, that could improve Beijing's image with the American public and Congress.
Another conciliatory gesture would be the lifting of martial law and an end to executions of those who took part in the freedom movement six months ago.
Such gestures must come soon if an irate Congress is to be deterred from additional punitive measures against Beijing.