There must be something rotten about a State that fears the freedom of a campaigner for AIDS victims, an artist or a writer. But China’s persecution of human rights campaigners also shows how nervous an economically powerful State can be if it is morally bankrupt. The release of Hu Jia, one of China’s best-known dissidents and a campaigner for the country’s AIDS sufferers, will do nothing to wash Beijing’s notorious record in human rights. That Mr Hu had to spend more than three years in prison simply because he had advocated some basic human rights on the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 shows how tyrannical the communist State is. All that Beijing had against Mr Hu was that his campaign amounted to a “subversion of the powers of the State”. The same charge had been used against Ai Weiwei, one of the leading lights of contemporary Chinese art, who was also released from jail last week, and Liu Xiaobo, the human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. China’s rulers are obviously too jittery to allow even isolated voices of dissent to be heard in public.
However, Beijing’s decision to release two of the most high-profile of the regime’s critics from detention in quick succession is typical of its engagement with the free world. It comes while Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, is on an official visit to Europe and on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Obviously, Beijing wants to tell the world that it is learning to respect democratic values such as the rule of law. But the free world can react to China’s acts only by asking for more human rights and freedoms in that country. While Mr Hu and Mr Ai are set free, all their political and human rights are curtailed. More important, many of their fellow campaigners who are not so well-known continue to languish in jails or under house arrest. It cannot be any democratic country’s case that its trade relations with China make it difficult for it to press the human rights issue too hard. Beijing may have an interest in allowing trade to trump the issue. But the only way the world can help the cause of freedom in China is by keeping the heat on Beijing. What it does with human rights and the rule of law is not a despotic regime’s internal matter, especially if it happens to be a rising global power.