In a simpler world, Hu Na, the 19-year-old Chinese tennis star now seeking political asylum in the United States, would have come over to play tennis for a few years or to visit with cousins or friends, and then gone home. But nothing is simple when people move between a totalitarian country and a democratic one, even when the totalitarian country in question is the People's Republic of China, with which the United States has not the slightest good reason for a tussle over the allegiance and residence of one of its citizens.

It seems, according to Miss Hu, that she was pressed to join the Communist Party but did not care to and, fearing retribution, took the occasion of a California tennis tournament last July to defect. Chinese authorities deny both the fact of pressure and the threat of retribution. One can assume that their pride is stung by her act, which is not, moreover, isolated: fully a tenth of the 10,000 students and others that a newly outward-looking Peking has sent to the United States to soak up American technology have also applied for asylum. To retrieve Hu Na, the Chinese government has organized a campaign of emotional pressure on her, through the release of heartbreaking appeals from her family, and political pressure on the American government.

Characteristically, those American officials whose province is the improvement of relations with China have reportedly opposed granting asylum to Miss Hu and those whose responsibility is the advancement of human rights have favored it. The latter point of view appears to dominate in the State Department, but the immigration service, which has the formal authority, is keeping its own counsel. Anxious American friends of Miss Hu have recently thought to apply some public pressure by taking her before reporters to tell her unhappy tale.

It is painful to contemplate a situation in which a 19-year-old must make such a stark and perhaps irreversible choice. If she has asked for asylum, however, she must get it. The Chinese do not hesitate to enforce their standards on Americans visiting or living in their country. They must be asked, quietly, to understand that the values of American society simply prohibit the American government from being forced into a role as enforcer of their domestic discipline. They must crank this fact of American life into the way they manage their relations with the United States.