October was a good month for Chinese President Jiang Zemin. First, he presided over the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the Chinese People’s Republic. Those festivities helped him shore up his claim to stand alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as the third great leader of the country. He was spared potential embarrassment when the Nobel Peace Prize committee passed over Chinese dissidents when handing out this year’s award. And he closed the month with a tour of Europe, during which he received red-carpet treatment from Britain, France and Portugal. Sadly, those governments bent over backward to accommodate Mr. Jiang just when his government was cracking down on protest. The wrong signal has been sent.

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair went all out to honor the first Chinese leader to visit Britain since the 1949 revolution. He spent a night at Buckingham Palace, was driven with pomp and ceremony in a horse-drawn coach and dined with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. Both sides were doing their best to bury the bitter memories of the Hong Kong handover in 1997, and apparently they succeeded. The Chinese media crowed over the special treatment given to Mr. Jiang.

The stay was not without controversy, however. Prince Charles missed a dinner with Mr. Jiang, which the British press reported — and the palace denied — was because the prince was offended by China’s treatment of the Dalai Lama, whom he much admires. Human-rights demonstrators dogged Mr. Jiang throughout his stay. The Chinese leader dismissed the protesters, claiming he did not know exactly what their concerns were. Unfortunately, the British government was not so sanguine. Police used strong-arm tactics to clear demonstrators, marring their country’s long tradition of honoring freedom of speech.

Mr. Jiang received similar treatment in France. While protesters took to the streets, the government feted the president with a gala dinner. This followed a weekend at the country home of French President Jacques Chirac. Mr. Chirac, like Mr. Blair, also pressed his guest on human rights; Mr. Chirac, like Mr. Blair, also conceded afterward that “differences remained.”

The extent of those differences was plain. Mr. Jiang blasted a European Union report condemning human-rights abuses in China, arguing that those were internal issues, of no concern to other nations. And, as if to drive the point home, in the middle of the visit, three democracy advocates were arrested by police in the city of Hangzhou. The next day, four other prodemocracy activists were put on trial in the same town.

That was followed by a crackdown on members of the Falun Gong movement. Group members have not been intimidated by the government campaign waged against them during the last three months. Every day, several followers appear in Tiananmen Square, where they are promptly arrested. Reportedly, 10,000 to 20,000 members are in custody; allegedly, some have been beaten. The government last week declared the group a cult, which could open the door to show trials. The contrast between the kid gloves in Europe and the iron fist in China could not have been sharper.

If European governments were looking for a reward for their decorum, however, they must be disappointed. Mr. Blair toasted no special deals. In France, Mr. Jiang agreed to buy $2.5 billion worth of Airbuses, but those funds must be divided among the partners of that consortium.

After working out details of the Macau handover with the Portuguese government, Mr. Jiang continued on to the Middle East. There he will not be bothered by the human-rights issue; those governments have about as much use for protest as his does. But if the president is riding a wave of international acclaim, he must worry that it may crest.

The Chinese economy continues to grow, but the strains are increasing. Premier Zhu Rongji has maintained a decidedly lower profile since his trip to the United States last spring, prompting rumors that the reform program — and his position — may be threatened. The popularity of the Falun Gong group is a warning to the Beijing government: There is a vacuum in the country. Worse, the group’s members have not been cowed by the power of the state. Mr. Jiang’s instinct is to bring even more pressure to bear against them. He may think that the rest of the world will look on with indifference. The democratic nations should disabuse him of that idea. They had the chance last week, and they did not take it.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.