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T HE OLD Chinese word "kowtow" describes the ceremonial act of prostration before the emperor as a sign of homage or worship.

The word has been used several times in Congress recently to describe President Bush's relations with China, and it also eloquently describes the Senate's submission, in this week's override vote, to Chinese demands and presidential authority.

The president's basic policy -- to oppose Chinese repression but maintain a working relationship -- is a good one. But his implementation of that policy leaves something to be desired.

While Congress was in recess, Bush vetoed legislation to make it possible for the thousands of Chinese students in this country to stay here if they feared persecution at home. In addition, it was revealed during the recess that presidential adviser Brent Scowcroft had made a secret visit to Beijing last July, just a month after Bush said he had cut off all high-level contacts.

Congress came back fighting mad, and the House showed it by its overwhelming vote to override. There were only 25 votes to uphold the president's veto in the 435-member House.

But Bush mounted an intensive lobbying blitz, aided by former President Richard Nixon, and he won a narrow victory in the Senate.

Bush argued that the legislation was "totally unnecessary," since he had already taken executive action to ensure that the students could stay here.

There would have been no harm in rein
forcing his action with legislation. It would have sent a message to Beijing about the American people's feelings toward the Chinese repression -- something Bush has done only half-heartedly.

The Bush veto came after China demanded it, complaining about the legislation. China is often sensitive about foreign interference in its internal affairs, but in this case it did not hesitate to intrude on the American political process.

A Chinese official expressed "great indignation" after the House voted to override.

The legislation was of only marginal importance originally. But Bush's veto and the intrusive Chinese attitude changed the situation. An override would have been an important way of telling the Chinese clearly where the American people stand.

It is too bad that the president allowed this issue to build into a big political confrontation, especially since there are no basic policy matters involved. His veto created a whole new issue -- the appeasement of China.

Bush is right in saying that China is a key player on the international scene, and he is right in stressing that is important to maintain U.S. ties with Beijing, which go back to 1972, when China was even more repressive than it is today.

But diplomatic relations are a two-way street. Our government should be communicating to the Chinese leadership the importance that the American people place on human freedom and their admiration for the courageous young people who were mowed down in Tiananmen Square.

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