READERS OF the print edition of the New York Times on Friday saw a three-column headline on page A12, “China Moves to Reinforce Rule of Law.” On the facing page were two one-paragraph news briefs that illustrated what “rule of law” really means in China. “Critic of Mao is Charged” was the headline over one; “Tibetan Abbot is Sentenced” read the other.

The longer article reported the results of a “secretive, four-day [Communist] party Central Committee meeting” last week that China­watchers were scrutinizing for clues about President Xi Jinping’s commitment to reform. When Mr. Xi took office last year, many Chinese hoped that he would curb the arbitrary power of party officials in favor of a more independent and transparent judiciary. In fact, intolerance of dissent and secretive purges have intensified, and last week’s party conclave produced no sign of a new direction, though officials touted it as reinforcing the rule of law. As experts told the Times, “the changes would do little to curtail the power of the party, which is increasingly intolerant of challenges to its authority.”

The legal assault on the critic of Mao gives a flavor of the current climate. Tie Liu is the pen name of Huang Zerong, 81, who has collected and published memoirs of people who were purged by Chinese dictator Mao Zedong in the 1950s and 1960s. Mao remains a hero in Chinese propaganda, despite the tens of millions who died in his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and no one in China is permitted to challenge official versions of history. Mr. Tie’s wife told the Times that he has been charged with “creating a disturbance” and faces a prison sentence of seven years or more.

Mr. Tie is likely in solitary confinement, but he is hardly alone in his predicament. China’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but under Mr. Xi hundreds of people have been imprisoned for attempting to exercise that right, often on charges such as “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” as Human Rights Watch has reported. Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who attempted to work inside the judicial system, remains under effective house arrest, unable to see a doctor or dentist to help recover from the terrible torture he was subjected to during five years of imprisonment. Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is serving an 11-year sentence for peacefully espousing the rule of law. His wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest, though she is charged with no crime. Recently scores have been rounded up for expressing support for pro-democracy students in Hong Kong, as Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented.

Some China-watchers believe that Mr. Xi is cracking down politically so that he can impose necessary but unpopular economic reforms. But to progress to the next stage of development, China will need innovative and creative entrepreneurs. It will need courts empowered to restrain politically connected polluters and rapacious developers who would steal land from farmers. It will need, eventually, leaders with the confidence and legitimacy to lead. That its current rulers insist they are promoting democracy and the rule of law “with Chinese characteristics” while in fact imposing the opposite suggests they do not have that confidence. In fact, the more peaceable 81-year-olds they lock up, the more afraid they show themselves to be.