WHEN Fang Lizhi, China's leading dissident, was asked the other day what he would say if he were to meet George Bush, he laughed unconvincingly for several seconds and then said, "I would say I hope he will do something to help my colleagues and my friends as he did for us."
Fang Lizhi was in Washington but he never did get to see Bush. Everyone understood why. It was the reason for everything else that happens in the Bush White House -- the Persian Gulf war -- although the president's deference to Beijing predates the consuming conflict.
Beijing is not exactly our ally in the gulf enterprise, but it hasn't voted against us in the United Nations Security Council, and since it has long been Bush's favorite totalitarian dictatorship, its most-favored-nation trading status is untouched. Bush is currently reacting strongly to human rights violations, but to some violators (Iraq) he sends B-52s while to others (China) he sent Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger with orders to make nice.
Bush was the loser for not seeing Fang Lizhi, a small, smiling man who is as genial as he is distinguished. Humble in manner, he is among the world's premier astrophyicists; but he left the laboratory to lead China's students and workers in the great surge to freedom and democracy that ended in terror and bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Fang's spirit has won him hosannas across the political spectrum. At a banquet at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced him in superlatives. Last week at the Hunan Dynasty Restaurant, conservative columnist Jeane Kirkpatrick presented him to a luncheon meeting as a great practitioner of human rights, a brother to Andrei Sakharov.
Bush himself is an admirer, and when he went to Beijing early in his presidency, he invited Fang to a banquet being given in honor of the Bush visit. The Chinese authorities, who are never subtle in these matters, chased Fang away from the Great Wall Sheraton. Subsequently Fang found refuge for 13 months in the U.S. Embassy and was finally released to England.
Bush has never received him. Fang is plainly beholden to him for his survival. Even so, he spoke out in England, saying that the United States has a double standard on human rights for the Soviet Union and China and has demanded much more from Moscow than from the unrepentant Chinese.
Lately, however, Bush has been as indulgent with Moscow as with Beijing. With the initiation of gulf hostilities, and perhaps because of them, Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a crackdown on Lithuania, sending in soldiers and thugs to beat down a popular movement toward democracy and independence. The Chinese have most recently restated their emnity toward human rights by handing out five-year sentences to survivors of Tiananmen Square whose only crime was to seek liberty. Speaking before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Fang told of others who do not receive even the charade of a trial. Countless numbers of dissidents have been sent to some 978 labor camps for indeterminate stays. In some camps, he said there are between 50,000 and 80,000 people. Ten percent of them are thought to be political prisoners.
Bush has professed to be torn up by Iraqi human-rights abuses in Kuwait, but the suffering imposed by those Fang calls the "cruel and violent authorities" in China has somehow not reached the president. Besides, say his aides, he did not go to war with Iraq for its human-rights abuses but for its aggression.
Both China and Russia need money. The Chinese love money, it is said, but not capitalism. But as Fang says, they cannot progress unless they reform their political system. The Russians are desperate for hard currency. But our secretary of state received the Chinese and Soviet ministers and stirred up considerable dust by issuing a joint statement with the Soviets about peace in the Middle East. The communique made an offer that Saddam Hussein never fails to refuse, but it also made the point that we and the hard-liners in the Kremlin are still standing shoulder to shoulder in the sand.
A matchless opportunity to make the two Marxist societies a little kinder and gentler is being lost. What's worse is that Eastern Europe, where so much of our future and the new Europe's is being spun, is simply off the screen of presidential and public consciousness.
Because of their size, China and Russia take the trophies for human-rights failures, but we are consorting with other repulsive governments. Turkey, for instance. And Syria, the terrorist country which killed our Marines and shot down our planes during our brief Lebanon intervention.
Bush goes on a good deal about "morality" in the current onslaught against Saddam Hussein. When you size up the coalition partners and fellow-travelers, you see that morality too is lost in the fog of war.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.