PRESIDENT BUSH spoke up yesterday for democracy in Mongolia, a poor, windswept nation of 2.4 million people that never before had been visited by a U.S. president. Wedged between communist China and authoritarian Russia, Mongolia's democrats certainly could use the boost they received from Mr. Bush. But it's striking that a president who dedicated his second term to promoting freedom did not do more of it during his weekend visit to Beijing -- where advocating for human rights is more difficult and more urgent.

Yes, Mr. Bush did attend a church service, and he did offer some perfunctory remarks encouraging China "to continue making the historic transition to greater freedom." In a speech in Japan last week, he called on Beijing to meet "the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness." But political liberalization was nowhere near the top of a bilateral agenda with President Hu Jintao that was focused on trade and economic issues and North Korea's nuclear program. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman probably was accurate when he reported that "human rights issues made up a tiny, tiny, tiny part of the meeting between the leaders of the two countries."

The United States has always had to balance economic, security and political priorities in relations with China, and Beijing doesn't respond readily to pressure from Washington. But Mr. Bush's light touch with Mr. Hu is disappointing because the Chinese president, far from continuing a "transition to greater freedom" during his three years in power, has been moving his country in the opposite direction. The Chinese media, academia, religious groups and the local Internet are all more tightly controlled now than they were when Mr. Bush last visited China, in 2002. More than a dozen journalists and writers have been imprisoned in the past year; lawyers seeking to defend them have been disbarred. Plans to expand local elections and allow foreign newspapers have been frozen, and Hong Kong has been denied the free elections that were promised when Chinese sovereignty was restored.

Mr. Bush's visit exemplified the rollback. When he was last in the country, the president delivered a political speech to Chinese students and held a news conference with then-President Jiang Zemin, and both were broadcast live on national television. This visit included no joint news conference, and Chinese television focused its coverage of Mr. Bush on his bike ride with the national Olympic team. In a break with past practice, none of the political prisoners on a list presented by the Bush administration to Mr. Hu's aides two months ago in New York were released before the visit, and a number of religious and political activists were detained to prevent them from getting near the president.

U.S. policy toward China for years has assumed that the country's increasingly free economy and rapid growth would make political liberalization inevitable. That theory may still be proved true, but for now Mr. Hu is making his huge nation a bulwark against Mr. Bush's freedom agenda. The president may not be able to reverse that policy. But he could, at least, more honestly describe it and energetically oppose it.