FOR CHINA, President Jiang Zemin's whistle-stop tour across the United States earlier this month was a success. Wined and dined and feted by politicians and corporations, Jiang genially established his status as a world leader. He promised not to sell nuclear weapons exports to Iran. For its part, the U.S. government opened the door for American companies to bid on a $60 billion commercial nuclear power plant project for China. In addition, China's purchase of $3 billion of Boeing aircraft was finalized.

It all came, however, without any promise from Jiang to improve Beijing's dismal human rights record, to release a single dissident, or to ease up on the hounding of Chinese Catholics faithful to Rome. But Jiang, followed incessantly by protesters burning Chinese flags and waving placards with slogans like “Communism Kills” and “China: Most Favored Oppressor,” must have taken note of the noises in the street. Also, quite possibly, he walked away with the understanding that direct criticism of a country's government does not lead to political upheaval.

However, as neither the protests nor the congressional grilling Jiang underwent nor President Clinton's strong words about China's human rights were ever reported in the Chinese press, they probably will have no direct effect on Chinese policy, said Thomas Quigley, advisor on East Asian Affairs for the U.S. Catholic Conference.

In fact, all the evidence shows that in the last three years, the Chinese government has increasingly cracked down on the underground Churches, not allowing them to receive foreign clergy, sell Bibles, or conduct religious processions, much less celebrate Mass or administer the sacraments, said Quigley.

Beijing denies that it persecutes Christians, Muslims, and Tibetan Buddhists. In arresting priests saying Mass, fining and jailing faithful Catholics, and destroying shrines, it sees itself as punishing criminals, not hounding believers. The communist government views organized religion as a potential threat to its authority. In particular, the Vatican is seen as a foreign power. Loyalty to the Pope is judged as an allegiance to another country.

According to Chinese law, all members of a religion must register with the government. Those Catholics who choose not to, since registering signifies accepting that Rome has no authority, go underground. Catholics in the country are not allowed any ties with the Vatican and China refuses to permit the Vatican to appoint bishops. Secretly, though, many of the government-appointed bishops have reconciled with Rome, said Quigley.

At least a half-dozen Catholic bishops are in prison as well as several dozen prominent clergy and lay members, and there may be more, said Quigley. Catholics who put the authority of Rome before that of the Chinese government are punished with arrests, fines, beatings, and harassment.

Also, the Chinese government continues to forcibly abort the babies of couples who violate China's one-child, one-family rule and then sterilize the parents, said Joseph Kung, president of the Cardinal Kung Foundation, an advocacy group for the country's underground Catholics.

According to Quigley, state spies have begun to infiltrate the underground Churches to persuade them to ask the government for acceptance. The aboveground, officially sanctioned Church is the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which operates autonomously from the Pope. About 4 million Chinese are registered members of the CCPA, said Quigley. Another 8 million belong to the underground Churches, which recognize the authority of the Vatican.

In the aftermath of Jiang's visit, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a series of bills paying new attention to human rights and religious persecution in China. Also, later this fall, the Freedom from Religious Persecution bill, which proposes to set up an office to monitor religious persecution world-wide and impose various trade and other sanctions on violators, is expected to be voted on.

Also, three religious leaders—Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the International Policy Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops-U.S. Catholic Conference, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York's Park East Synagogue and founder-president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and Don Argue, president of the National Association of Evangelicals—are preparing to make a trip to China to explore the issue of religious freedom.

According to Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based agency promoting Catholic social teaching, Jiang went home with a deeper awareness of how important human rights and religious freedom is to Americans.

“I think ultimately China will loosen up,” said Father Sirico. “You can't go into a country like the United States that allows robust protest and go back to your country and see it the same way.”

Father Sirico also saw what he considered to be a glimmer of hope when Jiang spoke in conditional sentences. For instance, that he wanted to get the Chinese economic engine going before he turns his attention to other human rights concerns.

“He's tacitly acknowledging that there is an issue to get started,” said the priest. “From his perspective, those were giant strides. This is a country so utterly closed.”

Father Sirico does not believe that the United States should link trade with China's dismal human rights record.

“Missionaries themselves are saying ‘Don't cut off trade,’” he said. “Part of the people who are benefiting from a more prosperous China are the believers. It gives them more disposable income to use for the purpose of the Gospel.”

Mike Jendrzejcyczyk, director of Human Rights Watch, a secular, non-profit watch-dog agency in Washington, D.C., termed the outcome of Jiang's visit “extremely disappointing,” but said that this country has several chances in the near future to press China on its human rights record.

“Across the board, the summit was a real failure,” said Jendrzejcyczyk. “I was not surprised that China was not willing to make some token gesture. Up until the end, the (U.S.) administration hoped that a few dissidents would be released.”

However, he added, Chinese Justice Minister Xiao Yang will be coming in early next month to discuss the rule of law and to set up exchanges for lower level officials. He also said that the president should not set a date for his visit to China until there are signs of improvement on human rights.

“President Clinton should not be the first president to set foot in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre without that,” said Jendrzeyczyk. “He believes strongly in human rights. But that does not take the place of having a strong policy putting human rights on par with economic development.”

Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council a Washington-based evangelical Christian organization promoting Christian family values, called the visit a bad week for American values.

“It's pretty clear that everything else was in the back seat other than the desire to find more commercial agreements and trade with the Chinese government,” said Bauer. “When they call us the ‘money-bags democracy,’ they may be right.”

By strengthening China, Bauer said he feared the United States may be making a serious miscalculation. “They are continuing to oppress their people at the same time they are becoming economically and militarily more powerful,” he said. “At [some] time, the point will be reached that the United States can't back down. We have gotten into a mess in Asia three times this century. We can avoid this by saying that we are serious about our values.”

The Cardinal Kung Foundation's Joseph Kung spoke about the two foreign policies at work in the United States: Washington, and big business.

“I think that is what the Chinese government pays more attention to,” he said. “If I were the Chinese president, I would have no incentive to stop the human rights violations. It's business as usual.”

Kung urged the country to begin linking human rights to trade.

“We have policies of zero tolerance for sexism, racism, and child abuse in this country,” he said. “We should have zero tolerance or minimal tolerance for human rights abuses even when they take place more than 20 hours away.”

Lisa Pevtzow is based in Skokie, Ill.