In a testy exchange kicking off the first high-level talks between Chinese Communist officials and the Biden administration, China’s delegation warned the United States not to go all high-and-mighty.

“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States,” noted Yang Jiechi, director of the Chinese Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, “and they have various views regarding the government of the United States.”

To which we Americans might respond: Tell us something we don’t know. “Various views” surely understates our contentiousness, and whose confidence in American democracy has not been shaken after the past four years?

Yet I couldn’t help thinking: If China is so confident in the superiority of its own model — by contrast, “the leaders of China have the wide support of the Chinese people,” Yang insisted — why do its leaders act so afraid?

Why would a popular government lock up a man such as Wang Bingzhang, for example?

Wang was a democracy advocate living in North America in 2002 when Chinese agents kidnapped him from a meeting in Vietnam and smuggled him across the border into China. They detained him secretly for six months and then, in a closed one-day “trial,” sentenced him to life in prison.

Nearly two decades later, Wang is still in solitary confinement in a remote Chinese prison. If China’s Communist rulers are so beloved, why are they afraid to let this ­73-year-old man out of jail?

And I wondered: Why would such a beloved regime be so afraid of Zhang Zhan?

As The Post’s Lily Kuo reported, Zhang, a lawyer turned citizen-journalist, was sentenced in a closed-door trial at the end of December to four years in prison for the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

Zhang had traveled in February 2020 to Wuhan, where she filmed overwhelmed hospitals as the city where the covid-19 pandemic began struggled to cope with the virus. She was detained in May and has been force-fed as she conducts a hunger strike.

If China “has made decisive achievements and important strategic gains in fighting covid-19,” as Yang declared during Friday’s summit, why would the Communist Party worry about Zhang’s reports?

For that matter, what could China’s Communist rulers have to fear from a slight, soft-spoken 24-year-old like Joshua Wong?

Wong was sentenced in December to 13½ months in prison for helping to organize and participating in a protest in Hong Kong in 2019.

No one disputes that the protest was peaceful. Wong’s true crime was wanting to put Yang’s assertion of popularity to the test: Wong, like Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam and other young people being persecuted in Hong Kong today, favors free and open elections, which the Communist Party has never been willing to risk in China and which now — despite having made promises to the contrary — it has barred in Hong Kong, too.

That is why, when Yang was lecturing Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan about the popularity of his regime, the only source he could cite was unspecified “opinion polls.”

Polling has its uses in every country, and its challenges, too. Those challenges are particularly daunting in a country where respondents know that the wrong opinion can get them thrown into jail. In China, hundreds of lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders are in prison because they expressed the wrong opinion. Tycoons have lost their businesses for holding wrong opinions. Websites are banned if they do not parrot official Communist versions of history. Social media apps are not allowed if China’s secret police cannot read or listen in to every ­conversation.

Many Americans feared deeply for our democracy as President Donald Trump and his cronies chipped away at the rule of law and flouted the constitutional norms we had always counted on. Yang is right about that. Many of us feel far from sanguine that the danger is past, as Trump loyalists in many states work to make voting more difficult.

And who would disagree, as George Floyd’s killer goes on trial in Minnesota and Asian women are gunned down in Georgia, that “the challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated,” as Yang put it.

Yet, last fall, Americans were able to organize and rally and vote, and we turned out one leader and installed another.

I can endorse Yang’s criticism of U.S. human rights without being sent to prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”

So I would say to Director Yang, you are right about America. If you are just as right about China, let Wang Bingzhang and Zhang Zhan and Joshua Wong out of prison.

Let them speak their minds.

Let your people organize and rally and vote.

Let us see how wide and deep your support really is.

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