Setback for Rights in China

China this week dashed hopes that a leadership change would bring its citizens less repression and expanded rights of speech and assembly. The government put on trial two men who could be sentenced to death for urging workers to peacefully demand wages they were owed.

In December, the regime allowed democracy advocate Xu Wenli to leave jail for medical treatment and exile in the United States. U.S. officials had pushed for years for the release of Xu, a key activist in the late-1970s democracy movement who spent 16 years in prison before being freed. His release could have been a prelude to better treatment of critics of the Communist Party.

Beijing, which often releases one big-name prisoner and then arrests others who are less known, chose to tighten the screws on potential successors to Xu.

This week, labor leaders Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang were charged with subversion and tried in a one-day proceeding. They await a judge's verdict. Observers say the death penalty is unlikely, but several years in jail is not, as thousands of other dissidents have found.

Yao and Xiao's crime was rallying tens of thousands of workers last year in Liaoyang, a down-at-the-heels northeastern city in China's rust belt. Laborers complained of unpaid wages, lack of pensions and abrupt factory shutdowns that caused massive unemployment. The protests lasted for days, until police broke them up and arrested the ringleaders.

China's considerable economic progress in recent decades has been uneven. Privately run businesses replaced many state-run enterprises and made a new class of millionaires. But tens of millions of workers laid off from unproductive government-owned factories found no safety net when their promise of lifetime jobs and benefits from the state -- the "iron rice bowl" -- was shattered.

Political progress has lagged far behind economic advances. The state-owned media report only the government side in labor disputes, if they report at all. China bans independent unions, mindful of Solidarity's role in opposing Poland's Communist government, and Communist Party labor groups represent the party rather than the worker.

U.S. Congress members now touring China should voice objections to the trial of Yao and Xiao and the continued jailing of political prisoners. International Olympic officials also should speak up. They awarded the 2008 Summer Games to China with the expectation of human rights improvements.

In November, China replaced its top political leaders peacefully for the first time in a century, bringing to top posts a generation not steeped in the Maoist revolution. The transfer of power is still a work in progress, but younger officials led by President Hu Jintao surely do not intend the broad repressions of the past to be China's future.

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