In free societies, people's minds are allowed to wander where they will. That usually means thoughts do not linger long on unpleasant situations, no matter how significant. Some of the world's more purposeful authoritarian governments have come to count on that fact of life. They work their evil in secret or, at least, beyond the lenses of the television cameras through which most people know the world. The theory is: Out of sight, out of mind--and, too often, it works. The white racist regime in South Africa, for example, has markedly reduced the level of public condemnation it must endure by restricting the activities of foreign journalists.
The People's Republic of China--which, since the Tian An Men Square massacre last June, has afflicted its citizens with a wave of repression unmatched since the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution--now hopes to follow suit. Though the world's interest may have flagged along with foreign reporters' ability to cover the story, there is no sign that the human rights situation in China is improving. On the contrary, every reliable indication strongly suggests that the deadliest forms of repression may be assuming a more systematic character. For example, a report last week by the respected human rights organization Amnesty International charged that the Beijing government is carrying out large-scale secret executions of political dissidents.
The leaders of the country's Communist Party also are reported to be seriously weighing the possibility of putting their former general secretary, Zhao Ziyang, and his top aides on trial for inspiring last June's student demonstrations. Zhao's crime, according to party hard-liners, was his tolerance of "bourgeois liberalizations."
Even so, unless there is another live television spectacular, the level of Western and, particularly, American public outrage over events so far away is almost bound to wane even further. That makes it all the more imperative that the U.S. government not waver in its resolve to hold the Chinese regime accountable for its mistreatment of a courageous and helpless people.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings in Tian An Men Square, the Bush Administration adopted a balanced policy designed to preserve vital U.S. interests, while putting Beijing on notice that the level of constructive, friendly intercourse to which the two countries had become accustomed no longer could be sustained. So far, the policy has worked. By coordinating its efforts with those of Japan and the European allies, the U.S. government has isolated China to a degree few thought possible in June.
Now, however, there are disturbing signs that the Administration is quietly trying to coax Sino-American relations back onto their pre-June footing. According to a report by Times staff writer Jim Mann, Washington appears ready to relent on its objections to new World Bank loans to China. The level of bilateral diplomatic contacts has been allowed to rise in recent weeks and special waivers are being granted so that Beijing may continue to acquire U.S. technologies with military applications.
Perhaps worst of all is that one Administration spokesman told Mann that the "prevailing view" in the Bush White House is that U.S. television gave Americans a selective and exaggerated view of last June's events in China.
We will allow the parallels between such views and those promoted by the murderous old men in the Forbidden City to pass unremarked upon. What cannot be ignored is the fact that the Administration's backtracking on this issue invites a rigid and, perhaps, harmful intervention by a Congress that may lack a sense of moderation, but not a memory.