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China's leadership cowers

Sunday, March 6, 2011; 7:46 PM

EVERYONE KNOWS that the future belongs to China, right? Its economy recently surpassed Japan's as the world's second-largest. Its navy is roaming ever farther and with growing confidence. It is training a generation of scientists and engineers in numbers the United States can only imagine. Its high-speed rail network is the envy of the Obama administration - or at least it was, until top railway officials were sacked for apparent corruption and possibly shortcuts on safety.

But if things are going so well, why are China's Communist dictators so nervous? For two years now, they have been cracking down with increasing force on peaceful lawyers, journalists and citizen activists - and since the people's uprisings in the Middle East, the crackdown has taken on a new ferocity.

An anonymous Internet campaign calling on Chinese citizens to join the "Jasmine Revolution" has had little apparent success in generating protests. But it has whipped Chinese police into a spasm of aggression against Chinese and foreigners alike. The government has effectively retracted its promise to allow foreign correspondents to report freely, warning them away from sites where protests might take place. On Feb. 27, police assaulted or intimidated more than a dozen members of the foreign media who had ignored one such warning, according to Human Rights Watch.

Chinese have been treated far worse. At least 100 activists have been rounded up, and some have been charged with "crimes" that could lead to multi-year prison sentences. Three lawyers who did nothing but peacefully attempt to hold China to its own laws - Tang Jitian, Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong - have been "disappeared" by security agents, who took them away about three weeks ago and have yet to charge them or disclose where they are being held.

Equally lawless, even under Chinese law, is the continuing house arrest of Liu Xia, the wife of imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. During a five-minute reprieve from the usual Internet isolation imposed on her, Liu Xia wrote a friend that she is "miserable."

"Can't go out. My whole family are hostages," Liu Xia wrote, as The Post's Keith B. Richburg reported last month. "I don't know how I managed to get online," she also wrote. "Don't go online. Otherwise my whole family is in danger."

Meanwhile, police and plainclothes thugs continue to surround the house of the blind, self-taught legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who was released from prison last September. No one can visit; his family can't leave. This captivity, too, is being enforced outside Chinese law.

Communist Party officials routinely claim to enjoy the support of their people, though they do not dare subject that claim to the test of elections. Apparently they do not even believe the claim themselves. The result is that the vibrant civil society China will need as its economy grows instead is being stunted.

The Obama administration has raised human rights concerns with the Chinese government but often in a muted way. U.S. officials should do better, lest they help prove the assessment of Liu Xia, during her brief moment of Internet connection: "I'm crying," she wrote. "Nobody can help me."

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