THE CHINESE, such is their grace and diplomatic dexterity, get away with a lot. When was the last time a western politician of standing took them publicly to task for what Amnesty International describes as the "reams of evidence of mass executions, of political prisoners held for years without trial and ill treatment of prisoners"?

Amnesty's report deploring China's human rights policies was released last month, on the day before Britain and China initialed their agreement on the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong to China. The coincidence of those two events deserves more attention than it has received -- especially from those anxious about the future that Hong Kong may face.

The Amnesty report confirms that China's great revolution and later economic and political success were bought at a great price -- the near abolition of personal freedom and the creation of a repressive machine that was often arbitrary and on occasion quite savage.

Whereas the Soviet Union has long been charged by a wide spectrum of critics with being brutal and uncaring in its treatment of dissidents, China has for decades lived with the indulgence, even the favor, of outside Western observers. They saw the economic and social progress and, more recently, the economic liberalization and changed attitudes toward the West, but too often ignored the almost continuous disrespect for civil liberties.

But what does go on inside China? What do the people of Hong Kong have to fear at some future date?

The Amnesty report is 130 pages of horror stories: "There is no recognition -- either in law or practice -- of the right to be presumed innocent before being proved guilty . . . . Political prisoners have been held for years without charge or trial . . . . Forty-four crimes are now punishable by death." The catalogue of woes is long and painful.

More revealing perhaps than the report itself is its tone, compared to the last major report that Amnesty published on China in 1978. That report was launched in a decidedly upbeat mood. At the press conference that November, Thomas Hammarberg, then the chairman of Amnesty, observed: "Official government statements and Chinese laws confirm the patterns of political imprisonment described by former prisoners. We are not dealing with a situation where the government says one thing and the prisoners say another."

The death of Mao Tse-tung in September 1976 caused the shutters to be raised on the interiors of Chinese life. It seemed for a moment that the new leaders and Amnesty were marching to the same tune.

A few months after Amnesty published its findings, there were large-scale releases and rehabilitations of prisoners. Several million people had their reputations and jobs restored. The "Democracy and Human Rights Movement" began and wall posters flourished. Unofficial publications appeared, and were even tolerated.

In the spring of 1978 a new constitution had been enacted, and in the fall the minister of public security said that there was an urgent need to revise laws and to draft a criminal law and a code of criminal procedure. He was quoted in the People's Daily as saying that letters from men and women in various parts of the country had revealed that cadres "have violated laws, wantonly abused their power and bullied and oppressed the masses and encroached upon people's rights."

In the summer of 1979 seven new laws revising the criminal statues were submitted for approval to the Fifth National People's Congress. A citizen's rights were now protected from infringement by any person or organization. To extort confessions by torture, to gather a crowd "to beat, smash and loot" and to detain illegally and prosecute on false charges were strictly forbidden.

Nevertheless, the criminal statutes still allowed "counterrevolutionaries" to be prosecuted.

But by that summer it was clear, both from the ambiguity in the "liberalization legislation" and the government's own practices, that the brief moment of daylight was over.

In March the government had decided to ban wall posters and books "opposed to socialism and to the leadership of the party." Several human-rights activists were arrested, including Wei Jingsheng, then 21 and the author of perhaps the best- written and most outspoken of the wall posters, "Democracy -- the Fifth Modernization."

In a major speech in Peking in January 1980, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping said that the central committee of the Communist Party was preparing to submit a motion to the National People's Congress that would delete from the constitution provisions legalizing wall posters. The light was truly out.

The new Amnesty report confirms that nothing has changed for the better since 1980. Wei Jingsheng is still in prison. He is reported to have been kept in isolation in his cell most of the time since his trial.

Although it is true that China is holding fewer political prisoners than in the 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds are still held.

The period of liberalization in China was in fact incredibly brief. Now it lies in bits -- the victim of insecurity, rivalry and dissension within the ruling group. Is the future of the inhabitants of Hong Kong quite as secure as the pieces of paper collected by the British would have it?