Sadly, China and democracy remain poles apart. The summary trial and conviction last week of three pro-democracy activists left little doubt that Beijing's leaders remain intolerant of political opposition.
The three activists, Wang Youcai, Xu Wenli, and Qin Yongmin, were anything but subtle about their aims. They set out to organize an alternative to the Communist Party, naming it the Democracy Party.
Their efforts, short-lived for now, point again to the remarkable courage of China's democrats. From the Democracy Wall movement of the late '70s to the viciously repressed demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in 1989 to today, the decade-to-decade persistence of people fired by the idea of freedom inspires awe. They're speaking to China's future, and we've no doubt they will eventually be heard by more and more Chinese.
The information age is itself an ally of struggling democrats. Of late, China's mind police have been trying to crack down on e-mail, Web sites, and faxing. But their efforts are deluded. Ideas will continue to percolate in a China gripped by social and economic transformation.
The United States and other outside observers of change in China have a dual responsibility: to stay engaged with Asia's giant and encourage a free market of ideas as well as goods, and to unequivocally denounce such retrograde steps as the legal travesty just carried out. The defendants were not allowed credible representation in court. They were not even given the notice of trial required by Chinese law.
China's President Jiang Zemin recently proclaimed, "The Western mode of political systems must never be copied." A free political system is simply one that allows a diversity of views to compete for acceptance. It's a linchpin of progress, and it belongs to no region or culture. China's brave dissidents know this. The country's current rulers - bound by outworn ideology and wedded to privilege - are still trying to hide from it.