"Counterrevolutionaries": Who are they and why should they be freed?

In November 1997, Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent dissident, was released from prison and sent into exile in the United States; and several months later, Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, was also freed by the Chinese authorities and sent to the U.S. While these releases were welcome, they failed to address the more systemic problem of the thousands of other political and religious prisoners still being unfairly held in jails across the country. These include, according to official statistics, just over 2,000 people sentenced by Chinese courts, mostly since the late 1970s and many during the June 1989 nationwide crackdown, on political charges of "counterrevolution." In March 1997, China's legislature voted to remove the provisions on "counterrevolution" from the country's Criminal Law, but the repeal was not applied retroactively. While this group of prisoners represents only a small fraction of those arbitrarily detained in China, Human Rights Watch believes a review of their cases is warranted because the offense they were convicted of no longer exists.

What was "counterrevolution"?
China's laws on counterrevolution, first introduced by Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang (KMT) government in 1928 as a legal weapon against the Communist "bandits," were redefined and reestablished as the centerpiece of Chinese criminal law by Mao Zedong and the Communist Party in 1951. Their principal targets and victims over the next several decades were the wide range of "class enemies" that the new government identified as existing at all levels of the new, socialist China: former big capitalists, rural landlords, KMT spies, traditional religious sectarian leaders, prominent Catholic and Protestant clerics, "revisionist" adherents to Soviet-style socialism, and even, during the Cultural Revolution, countless "new-born bourgeois elements" (a label that was pinned on many members of the Chinese intelligentsia, whom Mao despised).

Only fragmentary figures are available for the numbers of those arrested and jailed as counterrevolutionaries in China since 1949, but it is clear that they run at least into the many hundreds of thousands.

The start of the Deng Xiaoping era and the promulgation of China's first Criminal Law in 1979 did not bring an end to the systematic legal persecution of peaceful dissent in China; indeed the new law gave pride of place to an entire chapter devoted to the definition and punishment of twelve different subcategories of "crimes of counterrevolution." The most frequently used sections of the law were:

  • Article 98, aimed at those "organizing or participating in a counterrevolutionary group"--usually meaning peaceful opposition groups, free labor unions or pro-democracy political parties;
  • Article 99, which targeted those organizing "reactionary secret sects and societies"--meaning the leaders of traditional Chinese religious sectarian groups such as the Yi Guan Dao (Way of Basic Unity);
  • Article 102, which was directed against those engaging in "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement," a legal shorthand for anyone found writing or distributing oppositional political tracts, flyers or magazines or making unauthorized political speeches in public.

These three sections of the Criminal Law, which by the late 1980s were said by the authorities to account for well over eighty percent of all "counterrevolutionary" convictions in China, were aimed solely against acts involving freedom of expression and association of the kind accorded full protection under international human rights standards. Other subcategories of the offense, for example "counterrevolutionary murder" and "rising in armed rebellion," referred to acts that also would be viewed as criminal in most countries, but such cases apparently account for a very small proportion of convicted counterrevolutionaries.

New laws
Freeing the "counterrevolutionaries" will not end imprisonment for political crimes in China. The old laws against dissent were immediately replaced, in the revised Criminal Law, by new and equally repressive ones directed against "crimes of endangering state security." The new crimes represent a rather unsubtle fusion of the old "counterrevolutionary" concept, stripped of the offending terminology, with the 1993 State Security Law--one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever passed in China. It remains to be seen how widely the new Criminal Law provisions on "endangering state security" will be applied.

Precedents for a review
In the meantime, the challenge is to convince the Chinese authorities that a review of the counterrevolutionary cases is warranted; in mid-1997, it specifically rejected the possibility of an amnesty, but the issue should be raised again. In other countries, the repeal of politically repressive laws has often been seen by the authorities as an opportunity to set up mechanisms for reviewing the cases of those previously sentenced under the laws in question, with a view towards eventual retrial, amnesty, or conditional release. In August 1992, following the repeal of a series of restrictive national security laws, the Philippine government ordered a nationwide review of all cases of political imprisonment dating from the time of the Marcos government. Many of the prisoners concerned were ultimately released on bail without being pardoned or even, technically, having the cases against them dismissed, but at least they were freed.

There are also direct procedural precedents in China itself for such action by the government: in 1959, for example, China's legislature announced and implemented a "special pardon" for not only thousands of KMT and Japanese prisoners of war but also thousands of sentenced counterrevolutionaries. Similar partial amnesties were declared by the government in 1961, 1973, and again in 1975. As part of the latter decree, Deng Xiaoping personally ordered the release of 3,000 former KMT officers of regimental rank and above--a figure considerably higher than the total number of sentenced counterrevolutionaries officially said to be now held in prisons across China. By the late 1980s, hundreds of thousands of "counterrevolutionary" cases dating from the Cultural Revolution and earlier had been reviewed, and in most cases officially overturned and the prisoners concerned released and exonerated, by the country's judiciary.

Article 80 of China's Constitution invests the State President, currently Jiang Zemin, with the power to declare such amnesties pursuant to decisions of the NPC. President Clinton's visit to China provides an excellent opportunity to press his Chinese counterpart to take this action with respect to the still-jailed counterrevolutionaries. The crucial first step towards such an amnesty would be for the NPC to establish an independent commission of review that would be charged with the task of comprehensively reexamining all the cases in question.

China's declared intention of signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights would make such a gesture toward this group of political prisoners particularly appropriate.

Some cases of imprisoned "counterrevolutionaries":
Yang Lianzi, now fifty-six years old, described by China's judicial authorities as a "private performance artist," who received a fifteen-year prison sentence in October 1990 for having worn a headband carrying a protest slogan during the May-June 1989 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and for "attacking the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist means of singing songs, playing stringed instruments and making speeches."

Jampel Changchup and Ngawang Pulchung, Tibetan Buddhist monks now in their forties who were arrested in Tibet in early 1989 for staging a peaceful protest and later sentenced to nineteen years' imprisonment for alleged "espionage" and "forming a counterrevolutionary group." Prominent among the state's evidence in support of these charges was a Tibetan translation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the two men had produced and distributed.

Li Hai, a young man from Beijing who compiled a list of several hundred political prisoners sentenced in the Beijing area for their involvement in the May-June 1989 protest movement; in December 1996, Li was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for "prying into and gathering high-level state secrets" that consisted, according to the official court verdict, of the "name, age, family situation, crime, length of sentence, location of imprisonment, and treatment while imprisoned" of the dissidents concerned. The notion that such information constitutes a "state secret" neatly refutes the official claim that all trials in China are "public and open."

Zhang Jinsheng, forty-three, a veteran activist who spent four years in jail in the early 1980s for his role in the 1978-81 Democracy Wall movement and was resentenced to a further 13 years' imprisonment for "counterrevolution" for having supported the independent labor movement in Changsha, Hunan Province, during the May-June 1989 protest movement. Zhang, formerly a machine-tool worker, is also the author of several prison protest songs that are sung by political prisoners across China.

Zheng Yunsu, leader of a Shandong-based unorthodox Christian sect known as the Jesus Family, who was sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment for counterrevolution in 1992, and his sons Zheng Jiping and Zheng Jikuo, both of whom received nine-year terms; the charges against the three men included holding "illegal" religious gatherings, leading a "collective life" and "disturbing the social order."

Zhao Fengping, a Democracy Wall activist from Changchun, Jilin Province and possibly China's longest-serving peaceful political prisoner.

US-China Summit (June 1998) and Human Rights - Campaigns Page

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