Many commentators looking at China's intellectual ferment as President Clinton's trip approaches have suggested that treatment of dissidents notwithstanding, Chinese citizens are freer to say and write what they choose than in any time the last fifteen years, perhaps even longer. Certain publications are cited as evidence of this trend:

  • An article, "Champion Political Reform, Too" by Li Shenzi, retired vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, calling for protection of universal human rights.
  • A collection of essays called Fire and Ice by Yu Jie, a Beijing University graduate student, focusing on governmental abuse of power and decrying "false patriotism."
  • A new translation of The Constitution of Liberty, the major critique of socialism by Friedrich Hayek.
  • Crossed Swords, a book attacking orthodox leftists by two editors of the government newspaper, People's Daily.
  • An essay entitled "Liberalism, Equal Status, and Human Rights," by Mao Yushi, a respected economist.
  • Publication of a special issue on political reform of the magazine, Fangfa.
  • Increased coverage in the national press of calls for political reform and in the local newspapers of official wrongdoing.

The limited new freedom to debate political and economic reform is welcome and indicates some degree of increased official tolerance for freedom of expression. Many Chinese also indicate that they feel freer to make remarks critical of the government or its leaders in conversation. But this "thaw" should be treated with wariness, for several reasons.

1. At the same time that this liberalization is in the air, there are numerous instances of increased government controls on freedom of expression.
These crackdowns seem to be particularly likely in the following cases:

  • where Chinese citizens air criticism or calls for reform in non-Chinese media (thus, the official warnings to former senior Party adviser and political prisoner Bao Tong after he gave interviews to the South China Morning Post and Washington Post earlier this month, and the harassment of people who have tried to communicate with Voice of America and other international broadcast media).

  • where anyone with a history of public dissent is involved (thus, the continued harassment of Democracy Wall activist and former political prisoner Xu Wenli, and the pattern of searching the homes of known dissidents, taking them in for questioning, or getting them out of major cities before the visits of important foreign delegations. Such preventive detention occurred in February, prior to the visit of a delegation of American religious leaders; in late April, during the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and appears to be going on now, prior to President Clinton's arrival).

  • where links to pro-democracy groups overseas are suspected, as in the treatment of Chinese scholars resident abroad who return home and face interrogation or a ban on their entry.
  • where possible action in the streets is feared, as in the case of labor activists demanding independent trade unions.
  • where calls for reform include discussions of independence of areas now considered parts of China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang.

2. There is a long history of thaws and freezes in China's intellectual community; the notion of a "spring" itself suggests a cycle that may lead back to repression.
The most recent period to be named "Beijing Spring" was the period of April-May 1989, before the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Earlier, the intellectual freedom authorized by Hu Yaobang in 1986 was eventually followed by a period of tightened controls. In both cases, the tightening came when the intellectual debate on reform led to demonstrations in the streets. It is not clear yet whether the 1998 "Beijing Spring" is qualitatively different from earlier periods of political relaxation, but it is worth remembering that such thaws in the past have resulted from disagreements within the leadership or from the desire of the leadership in power to distance itself from its predecessors in order to gain a certain measure of popular support. The periods of opening often have been representative more of calculated decisions at the top of the Party hierarchy on how to stay in power or improve the government's image than of a commitment to political liberalization and protection of human rights.

3. Areas with nationalist or separatist movements remain tightly controlled.
No one would argue that the openness now being enjoyed by the academic and intellectual community in Beijing has spread to places like Tibet or Xinjiang.

In short, we should welcome the easing of controls on speech and expression but be very wary of concluding that they represent a lasting improvement in human rights.

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

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