"Will democracy emerge by itself at the end of a natural and necessary evolution? Certainly not. On the way toward democracy, the smallest victory will exact a terrible price. Let us have no illusions: Democracy will be reached only after bloody sacrifices."

These prophetic words about China landed Wei Jingsheng behind bars 12 years ago. He is still imprisoned in Beijing for telling the truth in a wall poster and criticizing the elderly tyrants who run the Chinese Communist Party. Describing democracy as the essential "modernization" needed by Chinese society, Wei's historic poster foresaw both the demands of the protesters in Tiananmen Square and the gerontocracy's horrifying response in June 1989.

Now in prison with Wei are Wang Dan, Liu Xiao Bo and thousands of other of Wei's spiritual offspring who made the Tiananmen protest. Their cause, once the center of international concern and action, has been pushed off television screens and newspaper pages in the West by the Persian Gulf crisis.

China's patriotic dissidents risk becoming casualties of the diplomacy of the Gulf crisis. The man who put them in prison, Prime Minister Li Peng, bargains China's support for the anti-Iraq coalition in return for international acceptability for his blood-stained regime. Li has been able to consolidate his once tenuous hold on power by making China seem not to be the international pariah his critics claim.

The democracies of the West are in danger of letting the urgent need to halt Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses in Kuwait create political windfalls for other notorious tyrannies in the world. The United States and its European allies need to act to dispel the spreading impression that key partners in the coalition against Iraq, such as Morocco and Turkey, can expect a free ride on human rights abuses at home in return for support for human rights in Kuwait.

China and Syria provide the clearest, most important cases of nations trying to climb out of their own holes on the backs of the Kuwaitis. Both have been the target of international sanctions for their misdeeds. Both hope to get those sanctions lifted by joining the international campaign against Iraq.

"We told the Chinese that there are two kinds of sanctions -- those that get imposed and those that get lifted," a Western diplomat in Beijing told an American visitor recently. "They got the message."

The hidden agendas of Beijing and Damascus are scarcely hidden at all. And that may turn out to be the saving grace for Western democracies in this dilemma. Trade-offs should be manageable as long as the limits of cooperation are kept clearly in mind and hidden agendas do not become more important than the campaign to get Iraq out of Kuwait.

That is, the United States should not fall into the trap of believing the actions of China and Syria show that these two leopards are changing their totalitarian spots. Cooperation in the Gulf is a useful tool, not an act of salvation that transforms a regime's nature.

The decision by the European Community's foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg to resume high-level contacts with the Chinese helped produce China's U.N. vote this week for the ninth Security Council resolution condemning Iraq's occupation of Kuwait.

But spokesmen for the EC, which was following in the footsteps of the Bush administration's secret diplomatic missions to Beijing, also stressed that the ban on military sales to China would remain in place as long as the stain of Tiananmen clings to China's leadership. By expressing Western gratitude for China's cooperation on Iraq and the continuing Western condemnation of China's refusal to grant its citizens political freedoms and to heal the wounds of Tiananmen, the EC created a useful model for Western statements on China's new international role.

The same restraint is needed with Syria. President Hafez Assad has his own reasons for wanting to see Saddam fail in Kuwait. And Assad is shrewd enough to recognize that the collapse of Soviet global ambitions means that Syria's room for maneuver against U.S. policies in the Middle East is greatly reduced.

President Bush expressed the wish in an Aug. 7 meeting with the Syrian ambassador here "to turn a new page" in Syrian-U.S. relations. But without significant changes in Syria's attitude toward its own citizens and neighbors, the United States will not be able to build a stable relationship with Damascus. "You do not want to make an alliance with Assad," a French diplomat recently advised an American official. "He will do things to you that you are not prepared to do to him."

The Bush administration has to begin thinking now about the problems that success in the Gulf could bring. Illusions about the usefulness of one tyrant (Saddam) helped create the current mess. Forcing Saddam out of Kuwait can and must be accomplished without sacrificing Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and others who have fought for freedom in their homelands.

They and their cause must be part of the new international order.