WHILE Chinese President Jiang Zemin was talking rapprochement with US President Bill Clinton in Seattle last month, back home there was at least one person who had some misgivings about what the warmer ties might mean to human rights in China. ''A lot of Chinese people now say the United States has retreated [on human rights], that it's defeated,'' said Wei Jingsheng, the 43-year-old dissident who was released from prison last September after serving all but six months of a 15-year sentence. Although the Clinton administration has said China must do more by way of human rights improvements if Washington is to renew its Most Favoured Nation trade status next year, Mr Wei said Beijing actually has the upper hand. Other Western countries have quietly dropped, or at least down-played, human rights in their relations with China for fear of missing out on perhaps the most lucrative market in the world. Mr Wei fears the same thing may now be happening with the United States. ''China tells Western governments they shouldn't interfere with Chinese affairs, and Western governments seem to accept this . . . it uses business as a trump card,'' Mr Wei said. ''If you care about China's human rights, then I won't do business with you, it says. If you behave yourself and obey the Chinese Government, then I'll give you business. This method has had a big influence on Western countries. ''The Chinese Government always propagandises, even in conversations with me, that you shouldn't think Western governments or people really care about your human rights. They are controlled by Western capitalists. ''A lot of Chinese people think this way now. They never used to. They used to think that Western countries had a democratic system, and that voters could influence the government. Now they have the impression . . . it is the businessmen who are in charge.'' For the West to drop human rights considerations in determining its relationship with China would be a big loss for the Chinese people, Mr Wei said. While China is far from a democracy, Mr Wei believes human rights conditions have improved for ordinary Chinese, thanks largely to international pressure. ''Many Communist Party cadres at least now have the concept of human rights and of the violation of human rights. Before they didn't even have this concept,'' he said. Meanwhile, ''ordinary people know they have rights which should not be stripped away from them at a whim''. ''If there wasn't international pressure, a lot of political prisoners wouldn't have been set free, including me. Not only would we not have been set free, but according to the usual standards of the Chinese Communist Party, many of us, including me, would have been executed,'' he said. Few in China are more competent to speak on human rights than Mr Wei. Sentenced essentially for having advocated democracy as a fifth modernisation in the late 1970s, he spent most of his prison term in solitary confinement. The key to his mental survival throughout was a belief that he was right. ''I depended on spiritual support. What I did was aimed at improving the lives of ordinary people. I had nothing to regret. I felt I was more free than the bureaucrats of the Communist Party,'' he said. Thanks to a US$50,000 (HK$387,000) international activist prize from the California-based Gleitsman Foundation, Mr Wei has a huge degree of financial autonomy. But getting the money in hand did not come without a struggle. The Bank of China froze the money for a few days after the foundation sent it to his father's account. Mr Wei asked the bank for an explanation, but it did not give any good reasons. Finally,however, he received his money. With this funding, Mr Wei has set up a small office, with a secretary and a computer he has not yet learned to use. However, he is keeping the location of his workplace secret for fear he will otherwise never be able to escape the telephone calls from friends and interview requests from journalists. Mr Wei said he was using his time to compile materials from his prison days, such as letters to his family. He said he also planned to do some ''internal democracy movement'' work, but would not elaborate. The authorities have not restricted his movements per se, but officials have told him they are very unhappy with his interviews with foreign journalists, and his articles for overseas publications. Mr Wei pays the authorities little heed, but says they have their ways of getting back at him. For instance, he claims that after he gave two interviews to Hong Kong's TVB last month, Xinhua (the New China News Agency) pressured the television station so it cut his comments about Hong Kong from the first interview, and did not air the second at all. This, Mr Wei says, is an ominous sign for post-1997 Hong Kong, just a taste of what is to come. ''In the minds of many Communist Party officials, once they take back Hong Kong, they will wield their power there, they will interfere with Hong Kong in every respect, and gradually turn Hong Kong into a quasi-communist area,'' he said. The Sino-British talks on Hong Kong show, according to Mr Wei, the ''Chinese Communist Party fundamentally does not want to consider the opinion of the British Government or the people of Hong Kong. They will do what they want''. But Hong Kong could also be a problem for China. ''The Communist Party . . . think they've defeated Britain. They haven't realised if the Hong Kong question is not properly resolved, it can be a millstone around their neck - the biggest headache for China.''