BILL Clinton has chosen a man of strong conviction to manage East Asian policy for the new American administration. Mr Winston Lord was the first American official to enter China after the long 1949-1971 freeze in Sino-American relations. He strongly believes China must soon undergo political reform and that the mainland is breaking promises to grant Hongkong a highdegree of autonomy. The day before he was sworn in, President Clinton designated the former United States ambassador to Beijing to be his Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, bringing some badly needed Asian expertise into the upper levels of his government. Mr Lord makes up for that lack in more ways than one. For a start he has wide experience in the region. Even more important, he brings positive beliefs to bear on his new task. Former secretary of state, Mr Henry Kissinger, is usually credited with being the first American to break through the Sino-American bamboo curtain, on his 1971 secret visit to Beijing made while ostensibly on a mission to Pakistan. Mischievously, Mr Lord claims that distinction for himself. ''I ran up to the front of the plane as he entered Chinese airspace after leaving Islamabad,'' he once told me, adding ''Henry (Kissinger) has never forgiven me - he was sitting at the back of the plane.'' Unlike Mr Clinton's national security adviser, Mr Anthony Lake, who resigned over the bombing of Cambodia, Mr Lord stayed with Mr Kissinger throughout the Nixon administration - but decisively broke with him, and also with the Bush administration (which until then he had served) in the wake of 1989's June 4 massacre. Mr Kissinger and Mr George Bush essentially believed that the essence of US policy should be to sustain ties with China, whereas Mr Lord argued forcefully, in articles and in testimony to Congressional committees, that the right approach to China was to rigorously adhere to consistent policy and values - as the US had once done with the former Soviet Union. Seeking continued ties with China, Mr Bush sent his national security adviser to Beijing in complete disregard of the sanctions then in force. Mr Lord was appalled by this action, believing that it sent Beijing the wrong signals, and discouraged those seeking reform within China. In recent years Mr Lord has detailed his expectations for political as well as economic reform within China, and has displayed a keen and well-informed interest in the future of Hongkong. On the first anniversary of Tiananmen Square he maintained that China would undergo major political reform long before 1997. Last December in Tokyo, he still argued this case. ''One cannot have for very long an open economic system, economic reform and political repression,'' said Mr Lord. ''At some point you must have a more pluralistic political system to go along with a more open economic system. ''Many forces are at work which are apt to bring greater political freedom to China. Once some of the old leaders pass from the scene, I am hopeful that the need for both political and economic reform will take hold . . .'' He was also extremely forthright in condemning the Chinese invective which has greeted Governor Chris Patten's political proposals. ''In this brutal barrage we are seeing . . . the same mentality coming from the same people who were responsible for the Beijing massacre. ''Even as these few leaders and their frontmen massacred innocent civilians then, they are now threatening to massacre the future hopes of Hongkong, which is not in China's interests . . . But China's reaction to the Governor's very modest proposals says, in effect, 'We do not believe in one country, two systems, we do not believe in any autonomy, even the most modest proposals are going to get crushed if we do not like them.' ''This is breaking an agreement, it is threatening Hongkong's prosperity, and it is therefore threatening China's prosperity.'' It was almost certainly Mr Lord's forthright views which impressed Mr Clinton when he briefed the new president on East Asia last October during the election campaign. SIMILARLY, it will be those forthright views which Mr Lord will take into discussions over the next few weeks and months that will hammer out the Clinton administration's Asia policy. While Mr Lord's earlier association with Mr Kissinger's secret diplomacy, his three years as US Ambassador to Beijing and his marriage to Bette Bao Lord, the author of best-selling books on China, have given him the reputation of being a China specialist.But he is in fact much more of a generalist in Asian and global affairs. He has been director of overall policy and planning at the State Department, and after that he was president of the Council for Foreign Relations. In both posts China was but one of many concerns. Similarly, during much of 1992 Mr Lord's main preoccupation was as chairman of the Carnegie Endowment's National Commission on America and the New World. Two other members of the commission have already been appointed to the Clinton administration. The report the commission produced dealt largely with problems rather than regions. It stressed ways in which the US itself must change, as well as on how it might bring about changes in world affairs. In words that will haunt several East Asian governments during Mr Lord's tenure as assistant secretary, the Lord Commission report argued that ''the end of our global rivalry with the Soviet Union sharply reduces the need to muffle our concerns about unsavoury governments because of security concerns''. While Mr Lord got acquainted with East Asia as a result of the Cold War, he has been quicker than most to develop policies and principles for the new era. One can be sure that this is why President Clinton has nominated him.