WHEN Hou Xiaotian left China to carry her campaign for human rights overseas, she knew she might never see her husband again. The day before she left, Ms Hou sneaked into the military hospital, where her spouse is under armed guard, to catch a glimpse of him. She saw an emaciated man with sunken eyes and sickly skin, showing the effects of a four-year-long bout with hepatitis and a deteriorating liver. Ms Hou's heart was torn, but it told her she must go. So did her husband, Wang Juntao, 35, one of China's most prominent dissidents. ''He pushed me to leave China and not let him drag me down,'' Ms Hou, 30, said through a translator here. Ms Hou, who left her country in September to study human rights at New York's Columbia University, has been in San Francisco to accept an award for her husband from the Chinese Democratic Education Foundation. Human rights groups such as Asia Watch and Amnesty International say that Mr Wang, who also has heart disease, is close to death from years of medical neglect and squalid prison conditions. Mr Wang, a leading Chinese intellectual and former atomic researcher, was imprisoned in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Eighteen months later, Mr Wang was sentenced to 13 years in prison for writing counter-revolutionary propaganda and trying to overthrow the government. As the wife of an unrepentant dissident, Ms Hou was forced to leave her government job and was constantly followed by secret police and searched without warning. Still, she continued to speak out and give interviews to foreign journalists. Last May, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Winston Lord, went to China and apparently helped persuade Chinese officials to let Ms Hou out of the country. Beginning next month, she will be a visiting scholar at Columbia's Centre for the Study of Human Rights. Ms Hou has been holding meetings with top State Department officials - including Mr Lord - to advise them on how to deal with the question of human rights in China. Last May, President Bill Clinton indicated he would revoke the Most Favoured Nation trading status for China unless it significantly improved its human rights record by next May. Ms Hou says the US should still apply pressure, but also respect cultural differences, using gentle persuasion rather than confrontation. She recommends that the US begin by urging Beijing to free seriously ill prisoners, since China's own penal code allows such releases. Once her husband and other ill prisoners are released, she said, the West could try to persuade China to abide by its own constitution, which since 1982 has permitted freedom of speech and association.