HONG KONG — China’s release of prominent dissident Xu Wenli on Christmas Eve was a welcome gesture, but not much more than a gesture, unless the Communist Party fundamentally alters its policies and allows its citizens basic rights such as the peaceful expression of differing political views and the formation of opposition parties.

Certainly, for Xu and his family, his exile to the United States on “medical parole” must be welcome, since it allows him to once again taste freedom, the first time since 1998, when he was jailed after helping to organize the China Democracy Party.

Two years ago, while Xu was languishing in prison, President Jiang Zemin protested when Mike Wallace of the American television program “60 Minutes” called him a “dictator” during a broadcast. Jiang declared that he was an elected president, though the election was perhaps different from that of the American president.

“Why must we have opposition parties?” Jiang asked. He asserted that most people in China were satisfied with one-party rule.

That assertion, of course, has never been put to the test. While the Communist Party is trying to widen its base, it is not possible for one party to represent all the interests in a vast country like China. The very fact that from time to time people like Xu emerge and try to set up an opposition party — only to be crushed by the Communists — shows that there is a deeply felt need on the part of some people for a different political party, one with which they can identify.

Xu is the most prominent dissident to be released in recent years. His credentials as a dissident were earned in the late 1970s, during the brief flowering of the Democracy Wall period. He spent 12 years in prison, from 1981 to 1993. After a five-year respite, during which he was constantly under surveillance, he was imprisoned again in 1998 on a 13-year sentence.

It can be argued that Xu’s release, far from a show of magnanimity on the part of the Communist government, is a reflection of its success in crushing his spirit. Seven months ago, his wife, He Xintong, told reporters that her husband had refused an offer of being released in return for going into exile. “Others could adopt that method,” she quoted him as saying. “I can’t.”

Perhaps because he has contracted hepatitis, Xu has changed his mind. But no government has the right to demand that its citizens choose between imprisonment in their homeland or freedom abroad. Xu and others like him — such as Qin Yongmin and Wang Youcai, also cofounders of the China Democracy Party, who remain in prison — should have the right to freedom of association, which is guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

It is understandable that China, for many years, gave priority to such basic rights as the right to existence and the right to development. Without doubt, China has made much progress in the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights, but China has yet to ratify the international covenant.

Xu, in an article written shortly before his arrest in 1998, set forth his position on democracy and a multiparty system. He emphasized the need for nonviolence. The article’s tone was moderate.

“China’s democracy cannot be achieved in the near future,” Xu began, but he added that “history is on our side, although it is quite possible that the activists of my generation will not live to see the final victory of democracy in China.”

“I think China’s political reform should be a political process,” Xu wrote, “for in modern Chinese history there have been many radical, revolutionary storms inflicting much pain on people, but achieving little in terms of people’s democratic rights.”

As for the future, Xu said he hopes “for the emergence of a pluralistic, multiparty political environment.” However, “this does not mean that the only way to achieve a multiparty system is by overthrowing the Chinese Communist Party. If the party does its job well, is not corrupt, represents the interests of the people, then there is no justification for any persons or political forces to overthrow it.”

In that case, he said, the Communist Party “can be supported and chosen by people” and “can still be the ruling party after one-party autocracy is ended. Or it can be the main opposition party.”

Xu said the actions of political dissidents like himself “should not be covert, but should be open and in conformance with the Chinese Constitution.”

It is a tragedy that there should be no room in China for someone as thoughtful and moderate as Xu Wenli. And China is the loser, not Xu.

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