WHEN I read about dissidents being tried in Beijing and feel pessimistic about China's chances to emerge into democracy and freedom, I think of a comment a friend made to me in Beijing 10 years ago. He is an intellectual who had suffered grievously during the Cultural Revolution that preceded Deng Xiaoping's coming to power. In those days I was the optimist. Deng Xiaoping was in the early stages of his program to open China to the West and to carry out economic reforms. He had already gotten farmers to grow more grain and bring their pigs and produce to free markets.
He was also sending thousands of students abroad to the United States, Europe, and Japan, telling visitors that even if only a quarter of them chose to return to China, the country would still benefit from what they had learned. By contrast, Moscow was still under Leonid Brezhnev's stultifying rule. Western elder statesmen such as Helmut Schmidt were saying that China would achieve a transition to a market-based economy much more quickly than Moscow, because China still had a layer of citizens who remembered the days of capitalism and had not forgotten entrepreneurship.
So, when I asked my friend how he compared China's progress with that of the Soviet Union, I was surprised at his response. ``The Soviet Union is still ahead,'' he said. ``We have no Sakharov.''
It was an illuminating remark. Both of us knew that, basically, Deng was no democrat. He had given peasants the green light to get rich and students to go abroad. But he had also suppressed China's nascent democratic movement and sentenced its symbol, Wei Jingsheng, to 15 years in prison.
IN June 1989, when the Beijing authorities ruthlessly smashed student protests for democracy and freedom in Tiananmen Square, I thought of my friend's remark. More recently, when I visited China for a month's tour, I reminded him of what he said and asked for his comments on the prospects for democracy.
``In the short run, many of us see all sorts of things that are wrong with China,'' he said. It wasn't just Tiananmen or the suppression that followed, but a general malaise. There was corruption within the police and other organs of control. Robberies and violent crimes had increased, signifying a breakdown of respect for law.
The party and government had trotted out all the tired old political slogans of yesteryear, and people were dutifully mouthing them. But within themselves, they were waiting for the tired old leaders to go.
In the long run, my friend continued, it was these very things that made him optimistic. ``Democracy can't come to China overnight. People aren't prepared for it. A lot of people ask who will be China's Gorbachev. The Communist Party will continue to rule China for quite a while, but sooner or later someone like Gorbachev will appear, not because he wants to, but because the environment will demand it.''
The economic reforms begun 10 years ago had made only lopsided progress, my friend said. Some people had become rich; many were still poor. Geographically favored coastal provinces had made tremendous economic progress. Many inland provinces remained poor.
But regionalism is so entrenched today that diktats from Beijing do not have the weight of yesteryear. And economic growth in one province begins to affect its neighbors, as when Guangdong, a coastal province, needs more rice or laborers from its inland neighbor, Hunan.
So my friend's prescription is to continue and expand economic reforms, as well as ties with the outside world. He recognizes that there is a debate over economic reform within the Communist Party, but he also thinks that through a succession of two steps forward and one step backwards, the reform policies will win. There is no real alternative: The Chinese economy already is at a stage where it cannot go back into a Maoist straitjacket.
My friend says he thinks the West was right to show indignation over Tiananmen, but wrong to impose sanctions limiting trade and investment. It is the ideological infiltration accompanying these economic ties that will ultimately transform China.
My own conclusion after my recent tour of China is very similar to that of my friend. The US administration is right to show concern for human rights in China, but this concern should not be expressed by curtailing trade ties, as some members of Congress contend.
Imposing economic isolation on China will only delay the process by which democracy - not just a Gorbachev but a Sakharov - arrives in China.