China's slow march toward openness took a big leap backward last week.
Beijing forced the leaders in Hong Kong, which China took over in 1997, to put forth tough new laws that would end up stifling political dissent and the media in that major Asian city.
The proposed antisubversion laws aren't likely to be passed by Hong Kong's undemocratic Legislative Council until next year. That should give time for President Bush, who will host the Chinese president on a visit to the US this month, to ask if such measures mean China's Communist Party is more interested in its survival than in freedom and self-rule for its people.
China has so far failed in its handover agreement with Britain to bring democracy to the former colony and abide by its promise of "one country, two systems." That point won't be missed in Taiwan, which distrusts Beijing's offer of autonomy if the island will only return to the motherland.
China's long-term fear is that Hong Kong will be used for massive protests for democracy, as happened during the 1989 Tiananmen crisis. Or that independent groups like the Falun Gong spiritual movement or those demanding official independence for Taiwan could use Hong Kong as a base.
Such fears wouldn't exist if China, including Hong Kong, would channel dissent through a democracy, and not restrict basic civil liberties.
In fact, the exact wording of the proposed laws hasn't been released for public debate. But in the vague overview, the laws would give police even more powers than they now have in investigating murders. Anyone publishing "seditious" material could be jailed for seven years. And, most important, such actions would lack the checks and balances found in a democratic system.
With the US now restricting civil liberties in its war on terrorism, China may have thought it could get away with this. But a key difference is that a US-type democracy has the corrective ability to restore civil liberties.