When President Clinton steps off the plane in Beijing next week, issues and questions will swarm around him like bees.
Should he set foot in Tiananmen Square on the tenth anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators there? Should he visit leaders of the present-day democracy movement? Should he even be there in light of his own administration's alleged financial dealings with Chinese interests - dealings that may have compromised national security?Clearly, this is more than just another courtesy visit to a foreign land. But while Clinton has succeeded through his own foibles in making this trip more complicated than it needed to be, he is right to be visiting China. The United States consistently has granted most-favored-nation trading status to the Chinese. Presidents of both political parties have held that the best way to encourage true freedom in China is by encouraging economic freedom and handling human rights concerns separately. A courtesy visit reinforces that sound philosophy.
However, the president can hardly afford to ignore the question of political freedom. He can't afford to walk onto Tiananmen square without at least confronting the need to tolerate dissidence. But he needn't make these issues the focus of his trip.
Progress comes in small steps. China can't long compete in a global economy without extending greater freedoms to its citizens. And make no mistake, the Chinese desperately want to compete in the global economy, as witnessed by their desire to join the World Trade Organization.
As Clinton prepares for his visit, China is preparing to sign a United Nations treaty on political rights. The treaty guarantees nations will allow free speech, assembly and worship. That would be a giant step forward.
At the least, the Chinese recognize what has to done before true global acceptance is attained. Clinton can take a swat at the issues that buzz around him next week, but he needs to offer encouragement for the progress being made.