Letting China into the ultimate of capitalist clubs - the World Trade Organization (WTO) - would be like hiring an ex-convict to be a bank teller.
Entrusted to uphold an ideal of honesty and fairness, he might reform himself. Or he might wipe you out.
Granting China more access to the giant United States market under WTO rules would be a succulent plum for Beijing's Communist Party leaders. They've been trying to join the 134-nation group for 13 years.
But are they ready to shed their economic nationalism and control of key industries that now help them stay in power? They haven't done much in 13 years to shed such habits.
China is seeking many concessions from international rules of trade on the claim that it is like any other developing nation - small enough in global markets to have special status.
But China is home to a quarter of humanity. It's the rest of the world that needs protection - from a controlled economy that can quickly flood other markets with exports.
Once inside the WTO tent, would China hurt the US with inexpensive products while still curbing many US exports, services, and investors?
In its final negotiations for China's entry to the WTO, Washington is banking on reformers in Beijing to make big concessions - and implement them. It believes WTO entry will churn China faster toward reform.
That's a big risk, given the infighting among China's leaders. Even a few weeks ago, they closed off the telecommunications market to foreigners.
Then, too, once inside WTO, China may make so many legal challenges that this young and still-fragile trade body may lose its effectiveness.
Someday China will be in the WTO. But we hope President Clinton isn't compromising global trade or the US economy in a rush to achieve a historic moment during his final days.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society