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China Rights and Wrongs

China's signature on a treaty acknowledging universal rights of speech, worship, and association has little relation, so far, to official Chinese behavior.

Beijing's emissaries at the United Nations signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Oct. 5. Simultaneously, Chinese police were detaining Qin Yongmin, an activist trying to form a human-rights monitoring group.

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More recently, the country's worried Communist bureaucrats have closed nascent think tanks designed to spark discussion of change within China, and restricted travel abroad by those associated with these institutes. They've also banned further distribution of a book of essays by scholars who've dared to think beyond the present political and social structure. And, of course, anyone trying to found a new political party is harassed and, often, jailed.

The old China, clearly, is digging in against the new - even, ironically, as a widening experiment with market economics impels change.

The dissidents - a handful among China's billion, but clear-voiced nonetheless - are on the side of history in this struggle. In recent weeks, some of their number have circulated, largely via fax and Internet, manifestoes on freedom and social justice. The stands they take are irrefutable: Rejecting the government's contention that rights are "relative," different in different nations; highlighting the link between a corrupt, one-party system, and the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of a few; decrying a legal system that serves a "ruling clique" instead of impartial justice.

The courage of those voicing such thoughts despite oppression inspires freedom supporters everywhere.

We continue to believe that wide contact and commerce with China will hasten the emergence of freedom. But that doesn't mean muffling criticism of official policy there, or being less than full-throated in our support for China's human-rights pioneers.

The document signed a month ago sets a course, whether Communist Party diehards in Beijing like it or not.

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