WASHINGTON — During a moment of frustration at the State Department in 1980, Patricia Derian, the Carter Administration's assistant secretary for human rights, admitted that U.S. human rights policy toward China had been "notable for its non-existence."
A year later, the Reagan Administration--which came into office proclaiming its intent to focus more attention on the human rights practices of Communist governments--reversed a longstanding U.S. ban on the sale of police equipment to China's Public Security Bureau, which at the time was imprisoning dissidents from the Democracy Wall movement.
And so, by the standards that existed in both Democratic and Republican administrations a decade ago, it marked a milestone of sorts when Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, paid a visit to China last month.
Until Schifter's visit, China had routinely rebuffed all U.S. inquiries about human rights as an interference in its internal affairs.
Schifter met with a series of Chinese officials in Beijing and Shanghai, asking questions about human rights issues and giving the regime a list of 150 nonviolent political prisoners the United States hopes will be freed.
He says that what matters in the end is not the trip itself, but what will happen inside China in its aftermath. "We are interested in positive results," Schifter asserts. "This (trip) was not just an exercise for the record."
Although China is the world's most populous country and many of its human rights problems have been well publicized for years, Schifter had never traveled there before.
Since 1985, when he took over as head of the State Department's Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, he had devoted much of his time to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
He visited Moscow 12 times, Poland twice and Hungary and Bulgaria once each before ever setting foot in Beijing.
One reason for this imbalance, Schifter says, is that he was required to travel frequently to the Soviet Union as a member of the U.S. delegation in the ongoing arms control negotiations between the two countries.
Another reason was the simple fact that until now, China wasn't ready--or willing--to welcome the U.S. official directly responsible for human rights.
"What is . . . different about this trip to China was that (they) were prepared to engage in dialogue," Schifter says.
Some critics say the Bush Administration paid a high price to win Beijing's permission for Schifter's trip.
Beijing agreed to let Schifter come when President Bush met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Washington last November--a major concession that effectively wiped out the remaining curbs on contacts between high-level U.S. and Chinese leaders.
"We feel that this (presidential meeting) should have happened only after the Chinese released all nonviolent political prisoners, made public a list of all those who have been detained and provided guarantees that observers can attend their trials," says Mike Jendrzejczyk of the human rights organization Asia Watch.
Now, Bush Administration officials hope that Schifter's visit has opened the way for the same kind of regular, detailed and continuing talks with Beijing on human rights that the United States began with Moscow in the 1970s.
And they would like to see some of the same progress in China that they witnessed over the years in the Soviet Union--including the freeing of political prisoners, an easing of religious persecution, greater freedom of the press and a relaxation of the restrictions on dissent.
But will the U.S. human rights effort in China be as successful as it was, over the long run, in the Soviet Union? At least for the moment, no one in Washington seems particularly optimistic.
The repeated U.S. exhortations for human rights in Moscow bore fruit only when Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his allies had the power and the will to make far-reaching changes.
So far, there seems to be no Chinese Gorbachev and no commitment in the Communist Party for basic political reform. If anything, the recent upheavals in the Soviet Union make the Chinese more resistant than ever to change.
Indeed, two days after Schifter left China, the Communist Party organ People's Daily unleashed a tirade against U.S. "guardians of human rights" that undercut the cordial welcome he had received.
The newspaper said human rights advocates seek to "protect the hegemony of rule by the bourgeoisie and dollar imperialists," and predicted: "Definitely, they will fail."
Many observers now believe China is planning to bring more of the dissidents rounded up during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations to trial in the next few weeks--precisely at a time when world attention will be focused on a possible war in the Persian Gulf.
For years, not only Chinese leaders, but some senior U.S. officials and Sinologists, have argued that it is unfair to apply Western standards of human rights to China, a country with a different culture and history.
But Schifter rejects that argument.
"I believe that when we talk about universal standards of human rights, we mean universal standards--any other approach would be racist," he says. "We're all parts of the human race, and some things are basic. When people are tortured, it hurts, no matter where they are and what culture they belong to."