Monday, September 2, 2002; Page A22

Aew days ago a leading AIDS activist in China disappeared. In many countries, such an event might prompt worries about the activist's health or fears of foul play. In China, the assumption is that Wan Yanhai has been put in prison for being too truthful about the AIDS catastrophe facing the country. Nor does it surprise anyone that police might spirit Dr. Wan off to jail without bothering to let anyone know.

It's worth keeping this incident in mind for a couple of reasons as the Bush administration establishes closer relations with China's Communist regime. President Bush has extended one of his coveted ranch invitations to President Jiang Zemin, who will visit next month.


What gives Mr. Bush such trust and confidence in a regime that is so impenetrably secretive? It's not only on the street-level that China's Communists feel no need to account to their people -- on the level of disappearing dissidents and burned-down churches and tortured Falun Gong practitioners -- but on the biggest questions as well. China is believed to be approaching, in November, a change of power in which Mr. Jiang, 76, will give way to Vice President Hu Jintao, 59 -- but, then again, maybe not. Maybe Mr. Jiang is maneuvering to hold onto power, if not his official title -- or, again, maybe not. Outside a tiny elite, no one knows; nor is anyone clear on whether Mr. Jiang and Mr. Hu hold different positions on important issues. Yet the fates of 1.2 billion Chinese, not to mention the nature of their relations with the rest of the world, depend on these opaque maneuverings.


The other striking conclusion that emerges from Dr. Wan's disappearance, aside from the atmosphere of secrecy, is how shortsighted are the regime's policies. Facing the risk of an Africa-style AIDS crisis that could decimate its population and economy, any forward-looking government would welcome the efforts of such activists. But Mr. Jiang and his cronies care more about their reputations. News of an AIDS catastrophe in China, after all, might spoil a friendly Crawford barbecue.