China's President Xi Jinping and State of Secretary Rex Tillerson meet in Beijing on March 19. (Thomas Peter/Associated Press)

FRUSTRATED BY China’s relentless crackdown on civil society and human rights, Western governments have lately adopted the tactic of drawing up joint communications to Beijing. Last year the United States joined in at least two such initiatives, a declaration at the United Nations Human Rights Council and a letter raising concerns about new Chinese laws on cybersecurity, counterterrorism and nongovernment organizations. The appeals haven’t stopped repression by the regime of Xi Jinpeng, but they have at least embarrassed it, and forced senior officials to respond.

On Feb. 27, a new letter was dispatched to the Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, on the vital subject of the torture and secret detention of a number of human rights lawyers. It was signed by 11 governments, including Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan. But from China’s point of view, the big news was the signature that was missing — that of the United States. Whether intentional or not, it was another signal that the Trump administration will play down human rights in its foreign policy, granting a free pass to regimes it regards as allies or with which it hopes to cut deals.

Such a policy can only mean more persecution of brave people like Xie Yang, one of the subjects of the new letter. Mr. Xie, who was arrested in 2015, provided his lawyers in January with a detailed account of the torture he has been subjected to, including repeated beatings and threats to his family. The letter called for an independent investigation into “credible claims of torture” against Mr. Xie and fellow lawyers Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang and Li Chunfu, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail, which first reported on the missive last week.

Beijing’s response to the letter exploited the Trump administration’s own rhetoric. As the Globe and Mail reported, in the days after it was sent state media published articles describing Mr. Xie’s allegations of torture as “fake news.” The state news agency Xinhua called them “cleverly orchestrated lies.”

In fact, the State Department itself documented cases of torture and illegal detention in its latest human rights report, saying China was guilty of “illegal detentions at unofficial holding facilities . . . torture and coerced confessions of prisoners and detention and harassment of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners and others.” But that report was drawn up by State’s professional staff, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose not to make a press appearance when it was released earlier this month.

In a visit to Beijing last weekend Mr. Tillerson said he had “made clear that the United States will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.” So why not support a concrete appeal drafted by America’s closest democratic allies? A State Department official told us that the inaction was mainly the result of timing; Mr. Tillerson had just taken office and quick action was difficult. But it’s doubtful that China’s leaders — or the courageous lawyers suffering torture — interpreted it that way.