IT WAS a sorry sight in Beijing last week as various statesmen traipsed through the Chinese capital, competing with one another to see who could prostrate themselves the lowest in front of the mainland leadership. First in line was US Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who conclusively demonstrated that where the lure of big bucks beckoned, three months were enough to completely reverse policy. Close behind was Macau Governor General Rocha Vieira, proving that even experienced politicians could stumble, when his visit was marred by the accidental release of a critical commentary on Chinese Premier Li Peng as part of a Macau government press kit. Yet it was the Americans who stole the show - by so unashamedly executing a U-turn. The last time one of their cabinet ministers visited Beijing, it had been Secretary of State Warren Christopher, laying down the law on how China had to improve its human rights if it wanted to continue trading normally with the US. But, by last week, it had become Washington that was begging Beijing to allow more trade between the two nations. Forgotten were the dissidents still detained as a result of Washington's earlier human rights crusade: at least 20, including democracy wall veteran Wei Jingsheng, had been taken into custody over the past six months, many in connection with Mr Christopher's March visit, and that of his human rights hitman, Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck. Also overlooked was President Bill Clinton's own commitment, when he severed the link between China's human rights record and its Most Favoured Nation (MFN) trading status last May, to establish a human rights code of conduct for US businesses operating on the mainland. That was not even publicly mentioned during Mr Brown's self-proclaimed crusade through China, spearheading the signing of more than US$1 billion (HK$7.72 billion) of contracts a day. Indeed, US officials privately say they want to water down the president's pledge by turning it into a worldwide code of conduct. Critics such as exiled labour activist Han Dongfang, who accused the US of making only a token mention of human rights in order ''to save face'', were sidelined with the help of the Chinese leadership. Demonstrating more tact than it has sometimes shown in the past, Beijing not only released student leader Wang Dan and refrained from detaining others, but also threw Mr Brown a much-needed bone: a pledge to resume its dialogue with the US on human rights. It hardly seemed to matter that this did not really amount to much. Based on past experience, any Sino-US meeting on human rights is unlikely to produce results. Indeed, it emerged last week that Beijing had responded to one US list of 108 political prisoners by claiming to have no knowledge of half of them. For Hong Kong, America's blatant display of self-interest over the past week should have finally dispelled any illusions, still harboured in Government House or elsewhere, that the US can be counted on for support when China - as a National People's Congress Standing Committee resolution formally reiterated last week - dismantles the Legislative Council in 1997. Some in the territory may also take pride in how China, of which Hong Kong is so soon to be part of once again, is now so powerful the mighty US must humbly beg for access to the world's largest market. Yet that would be a somewhat short-sighted attitude. For, if even superpowers can no longer stand up to Beijing's leadership, then there is little hope that post-1997 Hong Kong will be able to do so. Certainly the territory does not want to end up like Macau, which already acts almost like it has less autonomy than Hong Kong has been promised, after the handover. The Macau governor's visit to Beijing last week would have gone virtually unnoticed had it not been for his press secretary's extraordinary gaffe. An highly embarrassed Mr Vieira hastily apologised, and praised Mr Li to the skies. No doubt, heads will roll in Macau over this. Perhaps the administration will try to make up for its faux pas by sending more people across the border to stand trial in the manner of James Peng Jiandong: the businessman, an Australian citizen, claims Macau police had forced him to cross the border into Shenzhen, where he was promptly thrown in jail.