PRESIDENT CLINTON has dispatched his chief trade negotiator to Beijing to negotiate China's possible entry into the World Trade Organization. The administration hopes to strike a deal in time for a WTO meeting scheduled to take place in Seattle at the end of this month; if this deadline is missed, the theory goes, months or years could pass before a similar opportunity presents itself. The negotiators will be concentrating on the details of an agreement that would run to hundreds of pages -- details on tariffs and telecommunications and textiles. But a more fundamental question also needs to be addressed: that is, whether welcoming China now into the WTO is in the interests of the United States or of the WTO.

The arguments in favor are clear and substantial. The World Trade Organization is an increasingly important international institution that both sets rules and adjudicates disputes. China's is one of the world's largest trading economies, also increasing in importance. To have it on the outside weakens the WTO. Bringing it inside the organization could influence China to more often follow rules, honor contracts and in other ways speed the transition from an arbitrary, party-run economy to a system of laws and openness.

That's the hope. Moreover, America's market already is almost entirely open; WTO membership would force China to open wider at least some sectors to U.S. investment and trade. What's to lose?

The answer is potentially the WTO itself, or at least the kind of WTO the United States wants to see. The trade organization, after all, is young and still fragile. Even its most democratic and capitalist members, though normally acceding to its authority, still flout it at times; witness the European Union's refusal to fix its rules on banana imports despite repeated defeats in front of WTO judges. Moreover, many rules remain to be written, such as in areas where trade intersects with antitrust law, government subsidies or labor and environmental protection. What would be the effect of adding an influential new member to help draft these rules, one whose economy operates according to principles inimical to those of the WTO? China's regime stays in power through a system in which law can always be trumped by party, and judges by party bureaucrats; in which property ownership is often unclear; in which subsidies are hidden, corruption is rampant and some exports are produced in a gulag of forced labor.

The issue is not whether China belongs in the WTO; in the long run, of course, the answer is yes. The issue is, rather, whether today's China -- a China ruled by insecure, intolerant Communist dictators -- can be reformed by the WTO, or whether the WTO will be reshaped by it. That is a fundamental question that any proposed deal must address.