VETERAN Chinese activist Dai Qing recently opted against publicly criticizing a government policy she abhors. She is not alone.
Many, but not all, political dissidents in China are shifting their tactics temporarily as the United States nears a decision on whether to punish Beijing through trade restrictions for its human rights record.
Ms. Dai and others believe that the US should continue to grant most-favored-nation trade (MFN) status to China, contending that rapid economic growth would actually help improve human rights by building up a prosperous middle class. Already, they point out, China's 13 percent annual economic growth has created a stronger demand for information and freedom of speech. Her argument for renewal is similar to that of US businesses staking their future on trade with China.
US insistence that China show "significant progress" in improving human rights by June has compelled many who would benefit most from broader human rights - but who support extending MFN - to keep their thoughts to themselves.
In early January, Ms. Dai and eight distinguished professors canceled an unauthorized seminar in Beijing on the controversial Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River that will force 1.2 million people to seek higher ground.
Public security officers made clear they would have obstructed the meeting, and Dai knew Western journalists would have detailed the crackdown overseas.
"We called the meeting a `special seminar' because the government would never allow a protest or a news conference, and we wanted to give it the opportunity to show that human rights have improved," she says. "Ordinarily I would stand up and fight, but these next few months are critical for MFN renewal.
"I'm not willing to say how I was shut up because that will make the government's human rights record look worse," she continues. "In fact, it is worse; I feel dishonest, but my decision was the lesser of two evils."
Removal of China's MFN status would cost it billions of dollars, since China exports roughly 30 percent to the US.
Another dissident, Li Hai, a student leader during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989 and a signatory of the banned group Peace Charter, which advocates freedom of speech and association, recognizes the contradiction of self-censorship today in hopes of greater freedom of speech tomorrow, but says that US policy leaves him and his colleagues no choice.
"I wouldn't want my actions to promote or obstruct MFN extension. …