August 24, 2011

VICE PRESIDENT Biden has emphatically backed away from his apparent endorsement of China’s one-child policy. But he made another statement during his recent trip to China, on human rights, that also caught our eye.

The one-child remark was off the cuff. Mr. Biden was answering questions from an audience at Sichuan University in Chengdu on Sunday, and the subject was entitlement spending.

“Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family,” the vice president said. “The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.”

Republican critics pounced (though it took them a couple of days). The one-child policy has rested on coercion, including forced sterilization and abortion, as well as incentives. On Tuesday, Mr. Biden’s office clarified that he opposes such measures, and the policy overall.

“The vice president believes such practices are repugnant,” a spokeswoman said. “He also pointed out, in China, that the policy is, as a practical matter, unsustainable. He was arguing against the one-child policy to a Chinese audience.”

In his prepared speech to the same audience, which focused on the need for U.S.-Chinese understanding and cooperation, Mr. Biden briefly touched on human rights. His preamble to the topic unwisely bought into official Chinese views.

“Maybe the biggest difference in our respective approaches are our approaches to what we refer to as human rights,” Mr. Biden said.  “I recognize that many of you in this auditorium see our advocacy of human rights as at best an intrusion, and at worst an assault on your sovereignty.”

There are a couple of misreadings there. Human rights are universal, enshrined by the United Nations, subscribed to (in theory) by China and every other U.N. member. They’re not something “we refer to as human rights”: They are human rights, and they’re the same rights no matter where you live.

More important, how does Mr. Biden know that students at Sichuan University view U.S. advocacy as an intrusion or an assault on their sovereignty? That’s what their Communist leaders would have us believe. But the students who were in Mr. Biden’s audience aren’t free to express their views on that subject. People who publicly advocate for human rights in China go to jail. Maybe the majority of his audience wished that Mr. Biden had been more forceful — had spoken out for harassed artist Ai Weiwei, say, or for imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo.

Mr. Biden’s mistake doesn’t negate the value of his going on to make the case that “liberty unlocks a people’s full potential.” But here’s why the mistake does matter. Dictatorships such as China’s invariably purport to speak for their people, in ways that are convenient for the dictators. The people are disappointed by U.S. policy in Iran, they tell us, or by Japan’s history books, or by the Nobel committee’s award.

Maybe it’s true; but how do we know? China’s communist rulers don’t dare let the people express their views, through elections or uncensored media or open opinion polls. Since they do not trust their people, we should not trust their official account of what their people believe.