After a year of political crackdowns, government-stoked anti-American fervor, drift in China's leadership and saber rattling at Taiwan, China's liberal intellectuals are welcoming a deal for Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization as a fresh start that will encourage real political reforms here.

"Before the sky was black. Now there is a light," said Ren Wanding, a longtime political dissident who has been jailed off and on since participating in the Democracy Wall movement in 1978. "This can be a new beginning."

No one expects China to embrace any substantive political reform immediately. A crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual movement continues apace. Four founders of the nascent China Democratic Party were sentenced to jail terms of five to 11 years for subversion earlier this month. And controls remain tight on publishing and the media, the Internet and visual arts.

But its decision to enter the WTO marks another turning point in China's decades-long struggle to become a modern nation, and its 20-year-long fight to open itself to the outside world. Monday's agreement in Beijing with a U.S. team led by Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky will allow China to enter the 135-member global trade grouping, capping 13 years of intermittent negotiations.

Entry into the WTO will have three critical effects on Chinese society, according to Wang Shan, a liberal political scientist. First, it will ultimately replace China's old development model of experimentation, retreat and more experimentation with a more orderly march toward a full market economy. Second, he said, it will play down the role that China's aging leaders will be able to assume in jump-starting or slowing reforms. The demands of the market will take over instead. Third, he said, it will force the government to combine economic reforms with political progress. The past 20 years of changes in China have been founded on the precept that the country can reform economically without a fundamental political loosening. WTO membership, Wang said, will challenge that equation.

"Undoubtedly," he said, "this will push political reform."

Li Ke, a former editor at the liberal political journal Fangfa, which was shut down last March, said the most potent change wrought by the WTO will be in the Chinese psyche. The importation of foreign economic systems and culture will influence the Chinese people's psychology and the way they live their lives, he said. More importantly, the WTO will expand people's view of what is possible.

For the past 50 years the state has kept an iron grip on such key industries as telecommunications and banking, telling its people that such vigilance is needed for national security. But the agreement signed with the United States on China's entry into the WTO calls for high levels of foreign participation in these sectors, he said.

"For so many years of China's reform and opening, these areas couldn't be opened up and remained state monopolies. But if economic monopolies can be broken, controls in other areas can have breakthroughs as well," Li said, citing the sensitive example of government control of the media. "These breakthroughs won't necessarily happen soon. But in the final analysis, in the minds of ordinary people, it will show that breakthroughs that were impossible in the past are indeed possible."

News that China will soon be part of the WTO has saturated the media here and sent a jolt of excitement through intellectuals ranging from dissidents to mainstream economists, from philosophers to political scientists--as well as ordinary citizens.

"It's a New Year's gift for China as it enters 2000," said Li, who found a new job as a newspaper editor after Fangfa's demise. "It's a gift we never, ever thought we could get."

Efforts to establish the rule of law in China will also get a much-needed boost, said Mao Yushi, an economist and political reform advocate who runs the independent Unirule research organization in Beijing.

Mao cautioned against overestimating the direct impact of the WTO's international commerce standards on China's Communist Party-controlled legal system. But joining the WTO will result in a series of indirect changes that will help push China toward an eventual legal sea change, he said.

One of China's main issues, he said, is the impression that the Communist Party is above the law. But the WTO will show people that the law matters, he said. That in turn will naturally strengthen the domestic legal system at the expense of an arbitrary system run by the party, he said.

"The law should be overwhelming," he said.

Mao also said that China's reformist premier, Zhu Rongji, will benefit from the pact.

"He pushed hard in the past half year," Mao said. "The agreement reached would be good for everybody, but especially for him."

Xu Youyu, a prominent Western-leaning philosopher, said the decision to join marked "the first time in a long time that there seems to be a real direction" in China's government.

"People always say China can never go back, but over the last 20 years, and even during the last year, we've taken a lot of detours," he said. "Now we have a clear direction."

This direction is toward greater opening to the West, he said, which is "a basic condition for political reform."

Xu and others stressed that the WTO would not change China overnight. Its entry into the trade group will be part of a long process of reforming political life. Moreover, changes mandated by the world trade body will force millions of people out of work and disrupt several major Chinese industries, which could create short-term political problems.

"It won't change China's fundamental problems," Xu said, "but in the long run it will help."

Ren, the dissident, said China's entry into the WTO will help establish the best type of relations with the West for China. In the past, he said, too many Western countries, in their search for profits and contracts, "encouraged China no matter what it did."

The WTO, he said, would not play that role. "The West needs to supervise China," he said. "Not encourage it."