The most disheartening Oval Office photograph I have ever seen showed -- last December -- a smiling president seated next to Gen. Chi Hoatian, the Chinese defense minister. In 1989, when Gen. Chi was chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army, he was in charge of the massacre of unarmed pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square. (Some held replicas of the Statue of Liberty.) As John Diamond has noted in The Post, "hundreds, perhaps thousands" were killed on orders of Gen. Chi.

While a number of Republicans in Congress protested the welcoming of Chi by the leader of the free world -- with flags flying and cannon firing over the Potomac -- a lone Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, publicly denounced the Clinton administration for having "given great face to the hard-liners in the Chinese regime."

I asked her reaction to that Oval Office photograph of Clinton and the smug general. "Oh, my God," she said, "I thought I would never see the day. The president won't see the Dalai Lama, he won't see the pro-democracy dissidents, he won't see Harry Wu, but he did see this thug. It's absolutely appalling."

Why was she the only Democrat to speak out when -- as the new Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 points out -- "Torture of China's detainees and prisoners continues . . . medical treatment continues to be denied to political and religious prisoners . . . {Chinese} security forces in Tibet use forms of torture which leave no marks against those suspected of major pro-independence activism?"

Where were the liberal Democrats in Congress? "Well," Pelosi said, "Congress wasn't in session when Gen. Chi came." And all those other human rights Democrats presumably were bereft of telephones, fax machines and the U.S. mail.

Pelosi criticized Clinton "with great regret because I think he is capable of some good things." She did not enumerate what those are. But Clinton's policy of placing trade with China over criticism of its abysmal human rights record has, says Pelosi, "led to crackdowns in China. You would be hard put to find a dissident to talk to in China. They're all in prison, in labor camps or in exile. Their families have been silenced. It's heartbreaking."

She told me of a characteristic Clinton turnaround: "A year ago, at the United Nations anniversary session in San Francisco, he actually said in his speech, We will not limit our enthusiasm for human rights just because of the almighty dollar.'

"I was sitting, in the box, with Tony Lake {the national security adviser}, and I said, How could he possibly say that?' " I asked her what Lake said. "Nothing," said Pelosi.

It is not only Clinton and his administration that angers Pelosi. She speaks of the "huge amounts of money" being spent to legitimize the trade-over-human-rights policy. "Corporations allowed to do business in China lobby, make presentations and schmooze with members of Congress and journalists. Money is the biggest enemy of those of us on the other side. All we have been asking is that the Clinton administration does for human beings in China what it does for American intellectual property rights."

A corollary obstacle to helping China's prisoners of conscience is, as Pelosi puts it, the revolving door by which lobbyists become administration policymakers. "Sandy Berger," she notes, "was the point person at the Hogan & Hartson law firm for the trade office of the Chinese government. He was a lawyer-lobbyist. When he went into the Clinton administration he was second to Tony Lake, and now he is the national security adviser."

I told the congresswoman that Human Rights Watch/Asia has asked Vice President Gore to suspend his spring plan to visit China in light of the deteriorating human rights situation there.

Pelosi agrees, until actual human rights progress is visible. She also objects to the forthcoming formal exchange of state visits between Clinton and Chinese president Jiang Zemin. That exchange will be a further signal to the Chinese government, she says, that it will not be disturbed as it keeps fillng its prisons. "I thought it would be different when the Democrats came in," she said.

When Gen. Chi came to Washington to get his military honors, the CIA distributed his biography to members of Congress and other officials. Nancy Pelosi made it known publicly that the CIA had omitted any mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre in that biography. She did not get a thank-you note from the White House.

Pelosi thinks that increasing persecution of Christians in China may yet awaken American consciousness about that brutal regime. In November, in Jiangxi province, 80 Catholics were arrested without warrants, beaten and jailed.