CHINA IS using the general preoccupation with Iraq to dispose of the cases of the dozens of detainees left over from its forcible suppression of the nonviolent democracy movement a year and a half ago. Earlier, the Chinese "political-legal system" -- nice phrase that -- sent up those accused of violent acts. The current crop includes intellectuals and students accused of, among other offenses, "counter-revolutionary rebellion," which is Chinaspeak for the exercise of basic rights of speech and assembly. Beijing's dilemma is to deal with them not only as individuals comprising the brain trust of a challenging political movement but as representatives of a class essential to the health of the society. Some detainees are being released as "repentant." Others, including some who specifically sought to avert bloodshed, are being prosecuted and put in prison. By some combination of leniency and toughness, it seems, the authorities hope to close the books on Tiananmen Square.

It can't be done. The Chinese government lost its nerve, lost its sense at Tiananmen and conducted a savage reprisal against unarmed people, killing hundreds and creating a classic metaphor for late-20th century Communist repression. That this happened under a senior party leader, Deng Xiaoping, who himself had suffered for earlier dedication to reform only makes the default more grievous. The Chinese leadership is now attempting to govern without even the indirect consent of huge swathes of its population. It is choking off the civic contribution of some of its worthiest citizens. It is proceeding on the discredited theory that economic change can be advanced apart from political change. No one can say how many more years China must pay for this decision to put an elite's power over the people's interest.

Naturally, the authorities would like others to help them ease back into international routine. Here the Bush administration has a sorry record. It has shown itself ready to pay in major diplomatic and economic coin for Chinese political acts (accommodating American policy on Iraq, for instance) for which Beijing had its own reasons and for which Washington should not have paid at all. Blood is not flowing in Beijing these days, but the people who spoke out for freedom there remain in distress. A moment when the Chinese government, itself thoroughly "unrepentant," is doling out class justice is no time to forget the brave victims of Tiananmen Square.