THE United States was right to call off an exhibition of American portraiture in China rather than agree to deleting paintings of Golda Meir and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, as demanded by Peking officials. Inclusion of the two paintings - that of Mrs. Meir by Raphael Soyer, and MacArthur by Howard Chandler Christy - was provocative. Meir, who lived for a period in Milwaukee, was prime minister of Israel, a nation still unrecognized by China. General MacArthur is linked in Chinese eyes to the Korean war; the current Peking leadership, enduring an internal struggle between conservatives and progressives, has been showing a testiness toward its Korean neighbors.
Still, for the US to withdraw the paintings would be to compromise a very fundamental democratic principle, artistic freedom. For all its recent efforts to promote Western, entrepreneurial, competition-based reforms - which merit outside encouragement - China's government still struggles under its essentially authoritarian heritage. At art shows inside China, paintings by native artists are routinely ordered off the walls if they even appear to challenge some policy or propriety.
For China to scuttle the exhibition, put together by the National Portrait Gallery at the request of the United States Information Agency, would send a chilling message to Hong Kong. Peking promised the longtime British colony it would be allowed to keep its Western ways when taken over by China a decade hence. Watching too is Taiwan, which China wants to entice back into the mainland's fold.
Think again, Peking.