THERE WAS a certain stage-managed quality to President Bush's mini-clash with China over human rights this week. The words he employed were indeed strong: "The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings," Mr. Bush declared. "So America stands in firm opposition to China's detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists." Yet he spoke these words not on Chinese soil but in democratic Thailand. They came near the end of a broader address in which the president touched on many Asian subjects and offered countervailing praise for Chinese cooperation on international issues. The president released his text well in advance, giving Beijing plenty of time to respond. "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries' internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues," the Communist government replied -- and promptly returned to preparations for today's Olympic Opening Ceremonies, which Mr. Bush and other Western leaders will attend.
On with the Games! Undoubtedly, today is a moment of great pride not only for those who rule China but for many ordinary Chinese as well, as the achievements of their economy and their athletes go on display. But we say this without a sense of total certainty, because the true opinion of China's people is difficult to gauge. What they know about their country and the rest of the world is filtered through the distorting lens of official propaganda and censorship. And for those who exhibit excessive curiosity, or excessive outspokenness, the consequences -- loss of work, ostracism, prison -- can be dire. So we wonder: How many Chinese inwardly seethe at the pollution hovering over their capital? How many anguish at the forced relocation of thousands of Beijing residents to make way for Olympic venues? How many harbor unexpressed anger at the detention of peaceful dissidents -- a flat violation of their government's promise that hosting the Olympics would bring greater respect for human rights?
We look forward to the Games' high competitive drama and the sheer physical beauty of top-flight sports, and we hope the Games go smoothly. Yet wonderful as it may be, this quadrennial spectacle, the first in which all countries of the "Olympic movement" have met in the capital of an authoritarian country since the 1936 Berlin Olympiad, comes at a price. We do not refer to the $866 million in fees that 12 multinational corporations have paid for the privilege of sponsoring the show. We do not even mean, exactly, the price that Beijing is imposing on muzzled dissidents and other persons it deems inconsistent with a harmonious extravaganza. Rather, it's the intangible cost that these two weeks of Olympian international comity will exact on the cause of democracy itself. That cause can only seem a bit weaker -- a bit more hypocritical -- if, for the sake of a transitory "Olympic spirit," we avoid, or play down, issues of human freedom that are far more consequential than any gold.