CHINA MAKES the news these days mostly as a rising power, entwined with U.S. interests on issues ranging from America's debt to Iran's nuclear ambitions. The recently arrived U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman Jr., told reporters there last week that President Obama "told him to focus on a few big-picture issues: global economy, energy and climate change," the Wall Street Journal reported.
Every now and then, though, comes a news item so stark that it reminds us that China is something else as well: a one-party dictatorship determined to stomp on any shoots of political freedom. Such an item came, also last week, with the sentencing of Xie Changfa to 13 years in prison. Mr. Xie, who lives in Hunan province, was one of the many swept up by Chinese security forces ahead of the Beijing Olympics last summer; when the world moved on, he remained in jail. He had not committed, nor has he been accused of, any acts of violence. Rather, his "crime" was to help establish the Hunan Preparatory Committee of the Chinese Democracy Party. According to the nonprofit organization Human Rights in China, Mr. Xie's lawyer argued that China's constitution protects the right to organize a political party or assembly. Nonetheless, he was convicted of "illegally setting up a party in the long term" and "soliciting and inciting others to attack, denigrate, and overturn state power and the socialist system."
We cannot report Mr. Xie's reaction to the sentence. According to his brother -- who also was arrested last summer but who was subsequently released and permitted to attend the court proceeding -- Mr. Xie "was handcuffed for 30 minutes during the announcement of the decision. He did not have the opportunity to speak and looked haggard." No wonder: Mr. Xie is 57 years old and will be in prison until he is 70 if he serves his full sentence.
Mr. Huntsman said, thankfully, that human rights also will be on his agenda, and we hope that he raises the injustice of Mr. Xie's confinement. But human rights can't be treated simply as one item in a basket of issues. The nature of the Chinese regime -- its repressiveness and paranoia about threats from its own people -- inevitably affects how it behaves with regard to those issues cited by Mr. Obama and every other matter important to U.S.-China relations, including its attitude toward other dictatorships such as Burma and North Korea. You can't understand the regime in Beijing without understanding why it would lock away a peaceful, haggard and courageous 57-year-old in far-off Hunan province.