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The CDP first emerged during a period of political thaw in China that some publications referred to as a "Beijing Spring." Over a period of roughly a year, from September 1997 to mid-November 1998, Chinese authorities relaxed official control over intellectual debate and expression of political views. The thaw may have been linked to the relatively trouble-free passing of three key events: the death of Deng Xiaoping in February 1997, the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, and the Fifteenth Party Congress in September 1998. None of the events had triggered social unrest or political power struggles, despite predictions to the contrary.

The easing of controls may also have been part of an attempt to create international goodwill in advance of planned visits by U.S. President Bill Clinton in June 1998 and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson in September 1998. On October 27, 1997, China signed the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and hinted that the signing of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) would follow. Leading dissident Wei Jingsheng, sentenced to fourteen years in prison in 1996, was released on medical parole on November 16, 1997 and sent into exile. In this more relaxed climate, dissidents began to organize once again.

In March 1998, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen formally announced China's decision to sign the ICCPR.5 Almost immediately, veteran dissident Xu Wenli applied in Beijing to register a human rights organization, China Human Rights Watch (Zhongguo renquan guancha).6 At the end of March, Mao Guoliang and Wang Donghai, two dissidents based in the eastern province of Anhui, sent an application to the Ministry of Justice for permission to register a newsletter called China Human Rights News (Zhongguo renquan). In the city of Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, meanwhile, Qin Yongmin, a worker and former political prisoner, set up a human rights fax-letter called Human Rights Watch (Renquan guancha). It issued eighty-six reports before authorities stopped it in May 1998 as part of the yearly tightening of control before the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 massacre in Beijing.7

Throughout this period, dissidents sent petitions to the central government in Beijing, and open letters to U.S. President Clinton and U.N. High Commissioner Mary Robinson, asking for international attention to China's human rights situation. At the same time, Beijing's intellectuals discussed political change more and more openly. The government also allowed the publication of books such as Zhengzhi zhongguo (Political China), an appeal for political reform by thirty-four authors. These included veteran party cadres such as Li Rui, a former secretary of Mao Zedong; Li Shenzhi, a former secretary of Zhou Enlai; and Zhu Houze, a former director of the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department.

The Founding Of The CDP
Concrete ideas for creating an opposition party originated in late 1997.8 Wang Youcai, a former student activist who had been jailed for two years for involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, discussed the formation of an opposition party with a group of other dissidents.9 The idea had come to him while he was still in prison, but it was not until well after his release that he acted upon it. Initially, he proposed to create a party called the "China Justice Party" (Zhongguo zhengyi dang), but then changed the name to "China Democracy Party" (Zhongguo mains dang) because, he believed, people would be more familiar with the term "democracy" than "justice."10

Chinese dissidents abroad took a close interest in the establishment of the CDP. Some had already had the same idea. For example, before the CDP's creation, Wang Bingzhang, a dissident living in the U.S. who had been active during the Democracy Wall period, slipped into China on January 26, 1998. He planned to form an opposition party and distribute a manual for democracy activists, but he was detained on February 6, 1998 in Bengbu, Anhui province, and sent back to the U.S. three days later. Several of the dissidents he met during his visit were briefly detained, including Wang Donghai, Yang Qinheng, Zhang Rujun and Zhang Yuxiang. All later became active in the CDP, perhaps reinforcing the authorities' conviction that "foreign hostile forces" were involved in the organization.

The CDP was to be based on the principles of "openness" (gongkai), "peace" (heping), "reason" (lixing), and "legality" (an falu). Its aim was to establish direct elections and the formation of a multiparty system. In early 1998, its founders decided that their general strategy would be to form local preparatory committees to test the response to this by local government authorities. The preparatory committees would be in close contact with each other. In any province where there were enough members to form a group, an application would be made to the local civil affairs bureau to register it as a preparatory committee of the CDP. Since no formal procedures existed to provide for new political parties to apply for legal status, CDP members chose the civil affairs option on the grounds that this appeared most closely to approximate a system for lawful registration. Once preparatory committees had been established in a number of provinces, a national preparatory committee would be formed. Meanwhile, individual pro-democracy activists who did not belong to local preparatory committees would be able to join the national committee. That committee role would pave the way for the formation of a national opposition party which would engage directly in politics, including by putting up candidates for the National People's Congress.11

Early meetings of the CDP were kept secret. On the eve of the Clinton visit, however, members of the Hangzhou Preparatory Committee, led by Wang Youcai, decided to go public, believing that the Chinese government would not act against them while the visit was taking place.12 On June 25, 1998, therefore, they signed the "Open Declaration of the Establishment of the CDP Zhejiang Preparatory Committee" and circulated it over the Internet.13 This was the group's founding document. They also published a draft party constitution. On the same day, they requested the Zhejiang Province Civil Affairs Bureau (Zhejiang sheng minzhengting) to approve the party's application for formal legal status for the preparatory committee. It was the first time that dissidents had tried to register a committee that intended to work towards the formation of an opposition party in the People's Republic of China.

The "Open Declaration" declared that:

all political power can come only from the public and can only be [used] in the service of the public; a government can only come into being according to the wishes of the public and [can only] act according to the wishes of the public; a government is the servant of the public and not the one which controls it.14
It went on to criticize the ruling party for not allowing the existence of opposing groups:
The CDP forcefully condemns the behavior of ruling groups which suppress political opposition groups by force; forcefully condemns the application of methods such as torture and reform-through-labor against those who carry differing political views; and forcefully demands the authorities release all persons detained for differing political views. 15
The declaration also openly asserted that political power obtained through the use of "violence and violent intimidation" was "illegal without exception."16

As other preparatory committees were formed, the same basic text was used, though with local modifications as members saw fit.17

Lacking a secure communication system and without the funds to invite potential members to assemble at one place, the founding members called upon dissidents nationwide to take action themselves:

The CDP calls upon persons of the democracy movement in the various regions nationwide to enter the CDP, to prepare and establish local committees of the CDP in the various provinces and cities, to elect and appoint delegates, to take part in the National Delegates Congress and to organize a nationwide committee.18
After the CDP was formally launched in Hangzhou, Wu Yilong, one of the founding members and author of its "Guidelines for Activities," made a sixteen-day nationwide tour and was instrumental in the formation of other local preparatory committees. He did not contact potential members by telephone for fear that their phones were bugged, and he did not sleep in hotels to avoid registering his name, as hotel registers are routinely checked by officials.19 By December 1998, his efforts had contributed to the formation of some twenty-four provincial preparatory committees. The party also had some 200 individual members whose telephone numbers and addresses were posted on Internet websites.

Efforts to Register the Party
The authorities took their first action against the CDP on July 10, 1998, shortly after President Clinton left China. They detained Wang Youcai, who had invited dissidents to attend a "tea party" in Hangzhou to discuss strategy, and fourteen others. On August 7, Wang was officially arrested and charged with "inciting to overthrow state political power."20 In an unusual move, however, the government released him on August 31, apparently into a form of house arrest known as residential surveillance. The Chinese authorities rarely release indicted suspects from detention; his "release" was seen as a breakthrough brought about by international pressure and open letters and petitions from dissidents within China. CDP members then decided that the time was ripe for another preparatory committee to go public.

Accordingly, on September 10, 1998, Xie Wanjun and Liu Lianjun, two CDP members in Shandong province, went to the Office for Social Groups under the Shandong provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and sought to register the CDP Shandong Province Preparatory Committee. Xie and Liu saw this action as a means of showing authorities that the committee had been established, and to make clear that they intended to proceed openly and legally.21

Two deputy directors and a clerk received them and read from what the CDP activists said looked like a prepared statement. The statement said:

[T]he central government is considering the establishment of the China Democracy Party, but there are four conditions:

1. There must be a registered capital of RMB50,000 [approximately U.S.$6,098].
2. An office space carrying the name of China Democracy Party must be applied for in written form.
3. Resumes of the chairperson, vice chairperson, and secretary must be submitted.
4. A list of fifty members of the China Democracy Party must be submitted. 22

The officials added that the registration of the party must be "according to the Regulations Concerning the Registration and Administration of Social Groups." Therefore, approval should be sought first from the danwei or work unit, the basic building block of the Chinese administrative structure. But with this case, the officials said, as the "China Democratic Party" was a fully independent group, it presented a "new situation," and it would have to be solved according to "new considerations." They made no effort to clarify what these might be, but added that the registration procedures should all proceed "according to the law."23

CDP members in Shandong took it as a good sign that local authorities had received, but not immediately rejected, their application. Encouraged, CDP members in Hubei province tried to register. Chen Zhonghe, Lu Xinhua, and Ren Qiuguang, representing the seven-member preparatory committee, were received by officials of the Hubei Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and were given the same explanation that their Shandong colleagues had received the day before.24 The next day, however, a Beijing official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs said during a press conference for international media that provincial bureaus of civil affairs had no authority to permit the establishment of political parties.25

After that, local authorities became more careful and refused even to consider registering groups that they perceived as politically problematic. For example, when two CDP members, An Fuxing and Leng Wanbao, tried to register a group unrelated to the CDP with the Jilin provincial Civil Affairs Bureau in mid-September, they were turned away. The group, called the Economic and Social Rights Promotion Association (Jingji shehui quanli cujinhui), was set up to monitor China's compliance with the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.26 An official told the two CDP members that the National People's Congress was revising the "Regulations Concerning the Registration and Administration of Social Groups" to bring them into conformity with the ICESCR, so their application to register the new group could not proceed.27

CDP members then decided on another tactic. On September 13, activists from Jilin and two other northeastern provinces, Heilongjiang and Liaoning, announced that they had established a Northeast Preparatory Committee of the CDP and that, as it involved more than one province, they would seek official registration directly from the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing. They sent the application by mail. With Wang Wenjiang, a lawyer based in Anshan, Liaoning province, acting as the committee's representative, they invoked both the PRC constitution and the new Regulations Concerning the Registration and Management of Social Groups in support of their application.28

The Screws are Tightened
After these first attempts, the authorities became less tolerant. On September 16, five well-known dissidents in Beijing -- Ren Wanding, Ma Shaohua, Zhao Xin, Yang Qing, and Wang Linhai -- all veterans of the pro-democracy movement, established the CDP Beijing Preparatory Committee.29 They planned to try to register the party officially with the Civil Affairs Bureau on September 18, but on the evening of September 16 two of them, Ma Shaohua and Wang Linhai, were called to a local police station and interrogated for up to three hours. Meanwhile, the home of Zhao Xin, who was out of town, was ransacked. The next day, police told Ren Wanding to give up his plans to register the party. "We're still under the Communist Party's leadership," they said. "Setting up political parties is not permitted."30

On September 18, the Shanghai branch submitted its petition for registration. Signed by Han Lifa, Zhou Jianhe, Xu Hong, Yao Zhenxian and Li Guotao,31 the petition was delivered to the Beijing municipal Civil Affairs Bureau by Han Lifa. As the relevant officials were in a meeting, he left it with a note attached. At the same time, the Shanghai group sent the petition through the post. It was sent back.32

The day after Han delivered the petition, police came to Zhou Jianhe's house. He told Human Rights Watch:

Around 8:00, or 9:00 in the evening, police came looking for the five signatories, that is how important they considered the matter. So many people came to [the] house that they couldn't all fit in. Two were from the Civil Affairs Bureau. They introduced themselves. They were very polite and explained their jobs. They said that the registration submitted had been received, that as those responsible for registration they had to inform [the signatories] that the application was not accepted, not approved, and that it was thereby returned. The officials of the Civil Affairs Bureau then left, but the police stayed behind and told the activists, "You can't go on like this - we'll take you in. This is a directive from above. This is political activity, political thought."33

Police also told Han Lifa, who was questioned separately, that he and his colleagues would be held "fully responsible if anything else happened," and that they would not agree to register the CDP even if its members "made a hundred applications."34

At the end of September, police in Changchun, capital of Jilin province, issued a warning to the CDP Northeast Preparatory Committee, saying the committee was "an illegal organization (feifa zuzhi)." Tang Yuanjuan, a prominent dissident and CDP member who had just been released from imprisonment, was again detained on September 18, although it was not clear whether this was because of his CDP affiliation or because of his activities to promote labor rights. His detention, however, underscored the fact that many CDP members were engaged in a variety of dissident actions, some of them outside the scope of the CDP itself.

The five preparatory committees that had tried to register -- Zhejiang, Shandong, Hubei, Northeast and Shanghai -- issued an open statement on September 23 to protest against the term "illegal organization" used by the Changchun police and against the detention of Tang Yuanjuan.35

On September 24, 1998, Liu Lianjun, one of the founders of the CDP Shandong province preparatory committee, was detained, thirteen days after he and his colleagues had attempted to register.36 He described a discussion on the definition of "political party" he had with the police:

"[T]he police said, "A political party is not a social group."

"No?" I asked. "The definition of a social group includes political parties."

They said, "That is the broad meaning. The narrow meaning is that a political party is not a social group."

I said, "In a narrow meaning, a political party is also a social group."

They said, "Then our understanding is not the same." [...]

I said, "If it is not possible to establish a political party according to the current Law of [Social]Groups, I can only conclude that the Law on [Social] Groups has problems."37

On October 5, 1998, China signed the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. Marking the occasion, Qin Huasun, China's permanent representative to the United Nations, said that "to realize human rights is the ideal of all humanity. It is also a goal that the Chinese government has long been striving for."38 Ten days later, the CDP's Sichuan Preparatory Committee, led by Liu Xianbin, She Wanbao, and Huang Xiaomin, attempted to register at the Sichuan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau's Office for Registration of Social Groups. The application was refused on the grounds that a political party was not within the scope of social groups. "The Sichuan provincial Civil Affairs Bureau only accepts registration by social groups involved in arts and sports," they were told.39

The last two CDP preparatory committees to attempt to register with the authorities were in Guizhou and Henan provinces. On October 21, 1998, Zeng Ning and Wei Dengzhong submitted an application to the Guizhou Civil Affairs Bureau's Office for Registration of Social Groups, declaring that the committee "recognizes the position of Jiang Zemin as head of state" and was willing to cooperate with any political parties and social groups in China.40 On October 24, Cui Weimin, Wang Bing, An Ning, Li Zongshang, and Liu Shangguang mailed the registration of the CDP Henan provincial preparatory committee to the authorities. There was no immediate reaction.41 In retrospect, it was the calm before the storm.

5 Qian Qichen retirement statement at the National People's Congress, March 13, 1998.

6 The organization had no connection with the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch and later changed the English translation of its name to "China Rights Observer" to avoid confusion. The Chinese title remained the same. The organization only survived the changed translation by about a month, however, so the new name never caught on.

7 At least twenty dissidents planning commemorative activities were rounded up on the eve of June 4, 1998 and briefly detained.

8 Li Wanfang, "Bei `jianshi jujia' de Wang Youcai," (Wang Youcai Under "Residential Surveillance") Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), October 1998, p. 44-46.

9 Wang Youcai was No.15 on a blacklist of twenty-one 1989 pro-democracy student leaders of the movement. He was initially sentenced to four years in prison in January 1990 but was released on parole in November 1991.

10 Li Wanfang, `Bei "jianshi juliu" de Wang Youcai' (Wang Youcai under Residential Surveillance), Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), October 1998, p. 44.

11 Wang Youcai, "Ruhe zujian quanguoxing gongkai fanduitang" (How to Organize and Open Opposition Party), in Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), October 1998, p. 42-43.

12 Human Rights Watch interview with Yao Zhenxian, April 5, 2000.

13 Lorien Holland, "Chinese Dissidents Apply To Form Opposition Political Party," Agence France Presse, June 25, 1998.

14 Zhongguo minzhudang zhejiang choubei weiyuanhui chengli gongkai xuanyan (Open Declaration of the Establishment of the CDP Zhejiang Preparatory Committee), published on June 25, 1998, translated by Jan van der Made. For translation of the full text, see Appendix I.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 For example, the Shanghai Preparatory Committee, which was established in September 1998, added the following text: "The CDP's Shanghai Preparatory Committee will, after its establishment, continue to recognize the position of the Chinese Communist Party as the party in power. Meanwhile, it will also continue to respect the position of Jiang Zemin as state president. The CDP is willing to exist together with the Chinese Communist Party and the other parties on a long-term basis, to supervise and respect each other in order to improve the political system, to strengthen the legal system, to protect human rights, and to struggle for the promotion of a democratic and constitutional government."

18 Zhongguo minzhudang zhejiang choubei weiyuanhui chengli gongkai xuanyan (Open Declaration of the Establishment of the Zhejiang Preparatory Committee), June 25, 1998.

19 Human Rights Watch Interview with Yao Zhenxian, April 5, 2000.

20 Li Wanfang, "Bei jianshi juzhu de Wang Youcai" (Wang Youcai Under Residential Surveillance) in Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), October 1998, p. 45.

21 "Minyun de liliang zai yu zuzhi - fang zhongguo minzhu dang quanguo chouweihui chuangjianzhe zhi yi - Xie Wanjun" (The Force of the Democratic Movement is Being Organized - Interview with one of the Founders of the CDP National Preparatory Committee - Xie Wanjun) in Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), September 1999, p. 72-79.

22 Ibid. Xie said that he suspected the request for the fifty-member name list was a trick, and he was afraid people on it could be arrested.

23 "Zhongguo dangju shou zhongguo minzhudang zhuce shenqing" (Chinese Authorities Receive CDP Registration Application), Beijing zhi chun (Beijing Spring), October 1998, p. 50

24 Ibid., p.50.

25 Central News Agency (Taiwan), September 11, 1998.

26 "China Dissidents Attempt To Set Up Rights Watchdog," Agence France Presse, September 7, 1998.

27 "Jilin Minyun rent dengji chengli Renquan zuzhi wei huo zhun" (Jilin Democratic Movement Representatives do Not Get Approval for Establishment of Human Rights Organization) in Xiao cankao (VIP Reference), September 8, 1998.  Xiao cankao is a Washington D.C.-based Chinese-language publication which is aimed at the dissident community. Article 10 of these new "Regulations Concerning the Registration and Administration of Social Groups," officially published on November 3, 1998, said that a social organization required the following:

1. It should have more than fifty individual members or more than thirty unit members. If it is composed of individual members and unit members, the total number of its members should not be less than fifty.
2. It should have a standardized name and corresponding organizations
3. It should have a permanent address
4. It should be staffed with full-time personnel to carry out relevant activities
5. It should have legal assets and resource of funds. A national social organization should bave more than RMB100,000 (U.S.$12,195) for activity funds. A local social organization or a social organization that operates in two or more administrative areas should have more than RMB30,000 (U.S.$3,659) for activity funds.
6. It should have an ability to independently bear civil responsibility.

Article 11 states that the following material is required for registration:
1. A preparation application
2. An approval document issued by the authorities concerned.
3. An asset examination report and a certificate of the use right of a location
4. Certificates showing the basic situation and identification of the initiators and designated responsible persons
draft rules of the social organization.

28 "Three More Provinces Join Call For China Opposition Party," Agence France Presse, September 14, 1998. Wang Wenjiang gave up his membership of the Communist Party on September 14.

29 Ren Wanding was a veteran of the 1979 Democracy Wall period. He was sentenced to a four years in prison then and got another seven years for his involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Ma Shaohua had been a student leader during the 1989 pro-democracy movement who was detained for sixteen months after the June 4, 1989 crackdown. Yang Qing was among fifty-six people who signed a 1995 letter calling on the government to allow greater freedoms; he had served a seven-year prison term after the Democracy Wall movement in 1978-79. Zhao Xin was a former Beijing University of Science and Engineering student who was expelled from school and imprisoned for fifteen months as a result of his participation in the 1989 movement.

30 "Chinese Police Tell Dissidents They Can't Form Party," Associated Press, September 18, 1998.

31 All had been active in past dissident movements or had ties to other activists. Han Lifa, a motorcycle mechanic, had served three years in prison for pro-democracy activities and was only released in April 1998. Zhou Jianhe was a fifty-year-old shipyard worker who had been involved in the 1979 Democracy Wall movement. Xu Hong, a worker in a software company, was married to Lin Hai, the man sentenced in March 1998 to two years in prison for supplying 30,000 e-mail addresses to an overseas Internet publication. Yao Zhenxian had been detained together with his brother Yao Zhenxiang between 1996 and 1998 for their involvement in dissident activities. Li Guotao had been president of the unofficial Shanghai Association for Human Rights in 1994.

32 Human Rights Watch interview, Zhou Jianhe, April 7, 2000.

33 Ibid.

34 "Shanghai Warns Landmark Opposition Party Illegal," Agence France Presse, September 20, 1998.

35 "Chinese Dissidents Vow To Defy Party Ban, Appeal To Jospin," Associated Press, September 23, 1998.

36 "Chinese Dissidents Released, But Harassment Continues," Associated Press, October 8 1998.

37 "Liu Lianjun zishu: guanyu jiu yue ershisi ri bei juya jingguo," (Liu Lianjun Narrates: Proceedings of a Detention on September 24) in Xiao cankao, October 10, 1998.

38 Renmin ribao (People's Daily), October 6, 1998.

39 "China Dissidents Make Ninth Attempt To Register Opposition Party," Agence France Presse, October 15, 1998.

40 "Guizhou gaoyuan minyun renshi dingfeng zuoye, xuangao chengli zhongguo minzhu dang guizhou sheng choubeihui" (Democratic Movement Leaders Of The Guizhou High Plains Go Against The Wind And Proclaim The CDP Guizhou Province Preparatory Committee) in Xiao cankao, October 22, 1998.

41 "Defying Crackdown, Dissident Chinese Renew Efforts To Form Party," Associated Press, October 24, 1998.

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