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Backward in China

Monday, December 20, 2004

FOR TWO YEARS the outside world has speculated about where Chinese President Hu Jintao would lead his country once he and his team consolidated their hold on power. The answer got clearer last week when his police knocked on the doors of three leading intellectuals who have criticized the government or advocated democratic change. The detentions of Yu Jie, Zhang Zuhua and Liu Xiaobo confirmed the launch of a crackdown on dissent that includes greater censorship of the press and a new campaign by the Communist Party to tighten discipline in its ranks. Rather than dismantle the creaky political dictatorship that governs China's increasingly modern economy, Mr. Hu is headed in the opposite direction.

That development won't surprise those who have been watching China's foreign policy in the past few months. Mr. Hu, who replaced Jiang Zemin in his last post as head of the military in September, began the year by employing heavy-handed tactics to thwart a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Beijing has since undermined Western efforts to stop genocide in Sudan and to halt Iran's development of nuclear weapons and has positioned itself as a neutral party in the standoff with North Korea. Meanwhile, it has continued a large military buildup explicitly aimed at acquiring the capacity to invade and conquer Taiwan. Mr. Hu has cast himself as the architect of a "peaceful rise" by China. But the new superpower he would have the world welcome is one that would pursue its economic interests without regard for the cost to human rights or global security and would reserve the right to launch a war of aggression against a democratic neighbor.

The Bush administration, which came to office four years ago promising a tougher approach to China, has been largely passive as these policies have emerged. Its fecklessness compares favorably, however, with the cynicism of its European allies. Germany and France, self-styled champions of "soft power" as the best means of addressing threats such as Iran or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, have responded to Mr. Hu by offering to sell his army new weapons.

French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder have been rigid in their refusal to dispatch even a single officer to Iraq for a NATO training mission. But in separate visits to China this fall both leaders enthusiastically called for the lifting of the European Union's arms embargo against a government that does not disguise its aim to assemble a force capable of challenging American ships in the Taiwan Strait. This month the European Union disappointed them by not canceling the arms embargo at a summit meeting with China. But the European Union suggested that the ban could be ended within six months, something China's prime minister welcomed as a "positive signal." Mr. Hu certainly got the message: Four days later he felt unrestrained in rounding up some of the leading proponents of the view that his government should be held to a higher standard.