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Dealing with China

AMONG the official charges against Chinese democracy activist Wei Jinsheng was this thundering indictment: "attempting to raise a storm powerful enough to shake up the present government."

Strange overkill. Here is the autocratic government of the most populous nation on earth - with the largest standing army, nuclear weapons, the fastest growing big economy, and a UN veto - responding to a single frail one-time electrician as if he were an invading army. It had jailed Wei for 15 of the past 16 years. It now sentenced him to 14 more.

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His crime: words. He persisted in arguing that people ought to have a role in choosing their government. This kind of vindictive rule is a throwback to feudalism. That makes it hard for advocates of constructive dialogue among nations to shape a response.

A lot is at stake: the quality of life of China's people - set back so many times over the past century after promised new eras. The life of Hong Kong in the next century. Many billions of dollars of world trade and investment. The nondefense portion of the budgets of China's neighbors.

No one wants to suggest a new domino theory. But if Hong Kong isn't given its promised favorable status in 1997, Taiwan's citizens may be more reluctant to rejoin China. That could lead to more Beijing threats. And that, in turn, to further arms races among the prosperous, democratizing states around China's rim.

It's in that light that current popular resistance to US bases in Okinawa and South Korea, and uneasiness over North Korea's promise of nuclear innocence take on added meaning.

Most (but not all) China specialists believe that if master tactician Deng Xiaoping were still firmly steering China, the heavy-handed treatment of Wei Jinsheng, Harry Wu, and Tibet's new six-year-old Panchen Lama would have been avoided. Longtime China scholar Michael Oksenberg argues that all this callous bravado shows the leadership of President Jiang Zemin to be "deeply insecure." Uneasy lies his crown, so he allows his military hard-liners free rein in order to keep their allegiance.

What to do? Trade sanctions or other major threats would be counterproductive. Nor should Washington attempt the kind of containment policy that the more fearful Chinese old- guard leaders already are wrongly blustering against.

The most useful Western (and Asian) policy involves the undramatic hard work of allotting much more time to China. That means coordinating the approaches of the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, and the neighboring nations rich with overseas Chinese.

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These states all have a long-term interest in a prosperous, open, fair-trading China. Each should be constantly, coolly reminding China's top political and military leaders of their self-interest in moving beyond lashing out. Each should be reminding every business leader and provincial party official who takes part in a trade or investment deal what is at stake for that leader and his or her children.

All these nations trading with China should calmly keep making it clear they will not be intimidated by bombast. And they should give their quiet support to China's new generation of democracy dissidents.

This is slow, unglamorous, hard work. But it's likely to work better than tough speeches. Its aim: to remind China it's trying to reemerge as a great civilization.

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