LAST WEEK, China made permanent the single most conspicuous gesture toward political liberalization it offered before the Beijing Olympics: a modest easing of controls on reporting by foreign journalists. The relaxation hasn't always been observed in practice, and it doesn't apply in sensitive regions such as Tibet, where foreign reporters are still banned. It has had little impact on Chinese media or the information available to the Chinese population. Still, the communist regime trumpeted the step. "Opening up is very important. I believe in the past year and a half, China has improved a lot in this regard, and I believe it will do an even better job in the future," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Maybe Beijing really plans more reforms -- or maybe it just hoped to stop the measure adopted yesterday by the European Parliament, which granted its prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Hu Jia, the best known of several Chinese dissidents who were imprisoned before the Olympics. Mr. Hu was sentenced in April to 3 1/2 years in prison for the crime of telling the European Parliament, and the world, that China's Olympic extravaganza was "built on a base of grievances, tears, imprisonment, torture and blood." He is living proof that human rights in China worsened rather than improved thanks to the Games, and that the regression has yet to be reversed.
With its characteristic heavy-handedness, the government of Hu Jintao did its best to head off Mr. Hu's recognition. Its ambassadors dispatched letters, paid visits and made phone calls to European Parliament deputies; the common theme was a threat that awarding the prize to Mr. Hu would damage relations between the European Union and China. A similar campaign was probably waged against the Swedish members of the Nobel committee before this month's award of the peace prize, which in the end went to a Finn.
To their credit, however, the European deputies bridled at Beijing's pressure. "This prize is awarded in Strasbourg, not in Beijing," said assembly President Hans-Gert Poettering. The parliament's Green faction said it even better: "Awarding the Sakharov prize to Hu Jia puts human rights back at the heart of E.U.-China relations following China's failure to keep its pre-Olympic promises on raising human rights standards." Easing controls on foreign journalists, while welcome, doesn't change that record.