The four unfreedoms for a billion Chinese

For a short while it looked as if Peking's diplomatic and economic outreach to the West were going to be accompanied by enough regard for human rights to make Westerners a little less uncomfortable doing business with communist authoritarians. But the regime has now taken a constitutional step backward from the limited freedom that was granted in the first flush of change. It forces Western consciences to weigh anew the burden of callously profiting from -- or lending support to -- such a government. Is this outweighed by the possibility of eventually ameliorating the lot of a billion human beings through trade and other contacts? Whatever China's strategic importance to the West as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union, it cannot expect its domestic repression to be lamented any less than its glimmerings of democracy were welcomed.

How promising it all seemed in the afterglow of China's seating at the United Nations, its renewal of ties with various countries climaxed by the "normalization" with superpower America. Recognizing that Western-style democracy could not come overnight, the world nevertheless saw outspoken posters turning up on Democracy Wall, young Chinese talking with foreign journalists, underground publications advocating rights. Along came a new Constitution, guaranteeing citizens the right to "speak out freely, air their views fully, hold great debates, and write big-character posters."

Now, not much more than two years after the Constitution was published, China's controlling parliamentary committee has approved a Communist Party proposal to cancel the so-called four freedoms. The problem apparently was that some citizens were actually exercising these freedoms. Eliminating them on paper follows the demise of Democracy Wall, the harsh sentencing of a noted rights advocate, the purging of unofficial publications, and other antifreedom measures.

When Westerners have ventured to deplore such actions, the Chinese have flung back a shoe that conscientious Westerners will at least want to try on for size. The vaunted rights of the West, say the Chinese, may be fine for the bourgeoisie who can afford to take advantage of them, but they mean precious little to those on the bottom of the economic pile. Bu such a reckoning, the Chinese effort to spread the rights of food and health care, for example, looms larger than the freedoms of politics and expression whose use may get in the way of government prescriptions for egalitarian progress.

The answer for Westerners is neither to shrink from seeing to what extent the shoe of economic injustice fits nor to be tolerant of China's injustice in any realm. It is to recognize the West's enormous strides in ensuring rights for all -- and to keep up the struggle for doing better and better. Also it is to continue appreciating Chinese reforms -- and refusing to overlook reversals of them -- in line with what a Chinese editor said earlier this year:

"The democracy movement will go through a very difficult period, a low tide. But it won't die. Among the intellectuals and young people, the democratic idea has been started. It will continue to exist."

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