A Long March on Rights

It would be wrong to conclude that China is now off the hook on human rights. True, the US and the EU have agreed to suspend an eight-year effort to have the UN Commission on Human Rights censure China for human rights abuses. But Beijing remains under scrutiny.

Since the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Beijing has carried the brand of an oppressor. It ultimately knew no other way to deal with democracy-minded students and workers except the jackboot and tank.

How far has Beijing come since those dark events?

Without question, China's economic opening continues to reshape Chinese society. Market economics, much more than Maoist economics, accommodates individual freedoms.

But the old, repressive thinking persists in the political imprisonment of those who criticize the communist state, in restrictions on worship, in political fetters on Tibetans and other minorities.

Yet there have been steps in the right direction. Last November China freed Wei Jingsheng, an irrepressible critic of the party hierarchy. (Mr. Wei decries the decision not to press on with a human rights commission censure of China.) Last week Beijing announced it was ready to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The covenant obligates China to report on its human rights record and allow review by experts. This implies a recognition that human rights are universal - rather than insisting that China will define "rights" its own way.

These steps paid off in the non-censure decision by the US and Europe. But it must be made plain to China's leaders that these are only the first steps in a long march.

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