When it comes to China policy, American presidents over the past generation have adhered to a relatively simple pattern: Talk tough before taking office, then, once in the White House, backpedal. As James Mann documents in this issue ("Senior Moments"), the first President Bush was something of an idealist on China early in his career, decrying Henry Kissinger's strategy of cozying up to Mao Zedong during the 1970s and worrying that U.S. policy toward Beijing did not give high enough priority to the promotion of freedom. By the time he became president, however, Bush had adopted a very different approach; and, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the erstwhile defender of Chinese human rights could muster only the weakest of responses. Indeed, just over six months later, Bush would dispatch Brent Scowcroft to Beijing, where the ur-realist saw fit to toast China's murderous leaders as "friends."

And friends they would remain. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton sounded a lot like the young Bush Senior on China, denouncing our "very tepid response" to the Tiananmen massacre and saying, "I think it is a mistake for us to do what this administration did when all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square." He promised to be "firm" with China's rulers and demand that they "observe human rights in the future." And then? Clinton got elected and promptly changed his mind, admitting that his initial approach to China had been a mistake, largely ignoring Beijing's abuse of human rights, and rationalizing it all by predicting that, "when over 100 million people in China can get on the Net, it will be impossible to maintain a closed political and economic society." (How convenient for a president to argue that he needn't look out for American principles abroad because technology would do the job for him. History, of course, has made a mockery of this sentiment: Today, there are more than 220 million Chinese online, and the country is little closer to political freedom.)

Then, in 2000, along came George W. Bush, who also talked tough on China, albeit with more of a focus on grand strategy than human rights. Asked by Larry King in 2000, "What area of American international policy would you change immediately as president?" Bush responded, "Our relationship with China." He went on: "The current president has called the relationship with China a strategic partnership. I believe our relationship needs to be redefined as one of competitor." Once Bush took office, of course, this tough stance toward China melted. To be sure, September 11 altered America's strategic priorities in a way that no one could have foreseen. On the other hand, for a president who has staked his legacy on the worldwide promotion of freedom and democracy, Bush has been notably reticent to challenge China's leaders--on Tibet, Burma, Darfur, or their abuses at home. And, in two months, Bush will do China the honor of attending the Olympics, despite considerable evidence that Beijing's human rights record has actually worsened during the run-up to the Games.

Now we find ourselves in another campaign season and, wouldn't you know, once again awash in the usual tough talk (McCain: "When China builds new submarines, adds hundreds of new jet fighters, modernizes its arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles, and tests antisatellite weapons, the United States legitimately must question the intent of such provocative acts"), idealistic rhetoric (Obama: "China is not an enemy of ours. ... But whether it's the situation in Tibet or their support of the government in Khartoum that is helping to perpetrate the genocide in Darfur, we can't be silent"), and nods to principle (both candidates have suggested they would consider boycotting the Olympic opening ceremonies). Chinese leaders, however, are almost certainly not alarmed. Over the years, they must have noticed how presidential aspirants who denounced America's accommodation of China became White House occupants who dealt gingerly with their "friends" in Beijing. They surely expect that, come January 2009, the usual pattern will hold.

We hope it doesn't. It is true that America has key interests in China--strategic, economic, environmental--that no president would dream of ignoring. And of course there are times when human rights should take a backseat to these matters. For too long, however, the mere existence of other priorities has given presidents an excuse to permanently relegate human rights to second-tier status in our relationship with Beijing. This practice has to end.

The next president might start by drawing a clear distinction between the men who hold power in China and the people over whom they rule. China scholar Perry Link has persuasively argued that Americans have long tended to confuse the statements of the Chinese government with the sentiments of Chinese citizens. As a result, Link says, our government plays "a much weaker hand than it could in supporting the Chinese people in their quest for [a] ... fairer, more transparent, and more law-governed society."

There is, in fact, considerable evidence that many Chinese resent their government's ugly practices--its endemic corruption, its restrictions on religious freedom, its land confiscation policies, and so on. It may seem like a small step, but for the next president to speak forcefully and regularly about these issues would represent an important change in our relationship with the country. "The United States ... could do much more good than it is now doing by using dignified, clear, and strong public statements," argues Link--and he is right. No, such a step will not bring down the government. Nor will it necessarily lead to dissidents flooding out of jails. But it would, at the very least, signal to the Chinese people that our ultimate solidarity lies not with their odious government but with them: the billion, long-suffering men and women of the world's largest dictatorship, our true "friends" in China.

By The Editors