The European Union should pause in its determined march to lift the arms embargo that it imposed against China for the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989. Europe is set to prove the wrong guys right about the world's willingness to put aside outrage over human rights atrocities when business beckons.
The 25-nation confederation also risks introducing new controversy into European-American relations just as the Bush administration mounts an "outreach" effort toward its E.U. and NATO partners. Rather than new competition over global strategy, Washington and Brussels need a coordinated approach to the still unstable conflict between China and Taiwan.
The need for more reflection was underlined by the death in Beijing this week of Zhao Ziyang, who did more to create a post-Mao modern China than any other individual, and the fearful reaction of China's current rulers to Zhao's demise in shameful conditions.
Zhao's economic and political reforms in the 1980s began to free the energies that have made China the world's manufacturing hub and a better place than it was. And yet his comrades and successors made Zhao live, and die, in obscurity and detention rather than face the truth about what they had done.
Their fear is a great tribute to the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. The severe restrictions that were immediately imposed on news and comment about Zhao's death and on funeral arrangements demonstrate that what Zhao did in Tiananmen Square in 1989 still matters.
What he did was weep, apologize and express sorrow as he unsuccessfully begged peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators to go home. Zhao knew but did not say that he had lost the argument in the Politburo, which was preparing to send troops with shoot-to-kill orders into the streets of Beijing rather than allow continuing public dissent.
That display of human feeling for others was probably seen as Zhao's unforgivable crime by Deng Xiaoping, the country's paramount leader and great friend of American presidents. Deng would allow no weakening of the images of invincibility and historical inevitability that the Leninist regime had cultivated as its greatest weapon of control.
Deng calculated that the regime would pay relatively little abroad for putting Zhao under house arrest (where he remained for 15 years), killing thousands of peaceful demonstrators throughout China and brazenly telling the world that the slaughter was necessary to protect the country's economic progress. The West will quickly forget, he told the Politburo.
Europe challenged his cynicism by imposing an arms embargo and severely criticizing Beijing. Back then it was the United States that lent support to Deng's amoral argument. Brent Scowcroft, President George H.W. Bush's national security adviser, dashed to Beijing in secret a few weeks after the massacres to reassure the Chinese that relations would not be disrupted.
For Bush 41 and Scowcroft, Deng was China's hero, not Zhao, whom they helped marginalize with their obsequious secret diplomacy. Oblivious to the rapid collapse of the Soviet empire that was already in motion, they subordinated human rights to a balance-of-power strategy and a glorification of Deng that were both obsolete. The Clinton administration followed that pattern.
Today it is the European Union that is tempted to prove Deng right, as Germany's chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and others eye lucrative infrastructure contracts that Beijing hints will be held hostage until Europe drops its arms embargo. (The United States maintains a separate embargo, which, like the European ban, springs leaks.)
A unilateral E.U. lifting would probably provoke sharp congressional reaction, U.S. officials warned Javier Solana, the union's foreign minister, this month. This could complicate pending U.S. legislation that would loosen technology transfers to Britain and other allies.
Solana indicated that the ban would be lifted before June and said that Washington should be able to live with that. European arms manufacturers need new outlets, and restrictions on their ability to compete in the U.S. market make China a logical and necessary alternative, other European diplomats say.
There is room for a transatlantic understanding that would ease U.S. restrictions on European defense firms operating in the United States, facilitate technology transfers and establish coordinated economic steps to respond if China reduces tensions with Taiwan and moves to democratic rule.
But that accord should not be struck at the price of excluding human rights considerations from dealing with China. That would betray the humanistic legacy of Zhao, which may grow faint in the West but which lives on vividly in China. The anxious silence of the Politburo is proof enough of that.