Human Rights Developments
Defending Human Rights
The Role of the International Community
Despite some encouraging developments, Chinas human rights practices remained cause for concern. On the positive side, intellectuals had greater freedom to debate political and economic reform; some notable prisoners were released, including student leader Wang Dan; community-based organizations continued to emerge; and the government signed a major human rights treaty. A sharp increase in the number of lawsuits brought by citizens against officials through administrative courts seemed to indicate a growing consciousness of individual rights. At the same time, strict controls remained on expression, association and assembly, with political and religious dissidents, labor activists, and supporters of nationalist movements often facing arrest and detention.
Western governments seized on tentative signs of tolerance to strengthen calls for engagement, a desirable goal, but one that in policy terms all too often meant silence on Chinas egregious human rights record. Visits of world leaders to China were marked more by symbolism than substance and were often accompanied by preventive detention of known dissidents. In general, China played an obstructionist role in efforts to strengthen international human rights, most notably in discussions on the International Criminal Court. The government in Beijing took a largely hands-off approach to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, but this may have been due to the generally pro-Beijing policies of the SAR government.Human Rights Developments
President Jiang Zemins apparently successful consolidation of power during the year and the appointment in March of Zhu Rongji as premier led to speculation that the two might work in tandem to promote limited political reform. The appearance of books that would earlier have been banned, such as one linking corruption to the lack of checks in the political structure, and greater tolerance of public demonstrations during the year seemed to point in that direction. But China specialists pointed out that such openings, followed by crackdowns, have happened so often in China at times when they served the interests of those in power that it would be foolhardy to conclude that this represented any lasting liberalization.
Greater scope for scholarly discussion of reform did not mean increased tolerance of political dissent. Those who publicly challenged the Communist Party, organized petitions to senior officials on political issues, maintained links to dissidents abroad, or had contacts with the foreign media were particularly vulnerable to arrest and detention.
Thirteen activists from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province were detained for up to seven weeks after they attempted to register an opposition group, the China Democratic Party, on June 25. On September 10, officials in Shandong and Hubei provinces expressed willingness to register the party if petitioners paid a fee, but the next day, an official in Beijing overruled them. Would-be CDP party members also presented applications to register in the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jinan, Liaoning, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. They were questioned by authorities and in some cases, briefly detained.
A few notable prisoners were released at politically opportune moments. Wang Dan, the 1989 student leader, was released into exile on April 19, before President Clintons China trip and after the U.S. abandoned any effort to sponsor a China resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Bishop Zeng Jingmu was freed after a high-profile vist by a delegation of American religious leaders. But hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners were still serving long sentences for non-violent activities. They including Li Hai, imprisoned since 1995 for gathering information about Tiananmen Square detainees; Jampa Ngodrup, a Tibetan held since 1989 for copying name lists of those arrested or injured in pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet; and Gao Yu, a journalist arrested in 1993 on charges of leaking state secrets for gathering economic data that had not yet been officially released. Liu Nianchun, a labor activist, continued to be held in a labor camp beyond the May 21 expiration of his three-year sentence.
Many dissidents were sentenced during the year to reeducation through labor, an administrative sentence that can lead to detention for up to three years in a labor camp without judicial review. They included Yang Qinheng, a Shanghai activist, who received a three-year term on March 27, a month after he was arrested for reading an open letter on Radio Free Asia citing workers right to unionize. In early April Wu Ruojie, a rock musician, and Li Yi, a businessman, were sentenced for divulging state secrets about the arrest of four poets in Guiyang, Guizhou province.
Overseas connections often meant trouble. Li Qingxi, an unemployed former health worker from Shaanxi, was detained on January 16 and later ordered to serve a one-year reeducation through labor sentence at home for calling on workers to form independent unions, contacting overseas labor and democratic organizations, and listening to the Voice of America. Wang Tingjin, an Anhui mathematics teacher, was accused of assisting in the January 26 illegal entry into China of U.S. resident Wang Bingzhang. In mid-April he was sentenced to two years reeducation through labor. Chen Zengxiang, another dissident with connections to Wang, was reportedly sentenced in October to seven years in prison on charges of leaking state secrets, in connection with his distribution of a list of Shandong political prisoners. In October, Shi Binhai, a journalist at the state-run China Economic Times and co-editor of a book on political reform, was indicted for collusion with overseas dissident organizations.
China made a concerted effort to keep overseas dissidents and their relatives out of China. On April 4, less than an hour after she arrived at her parents apartment in Sichuan province, police took Li Xiaorong, a research scholar at the University of Maryland, into custody. She was traveling on a U.S. passport and had a valid visa, but according to police officers, her work in the U.S. on behalf of human rights in China was unacceptable. She was only one of several activists deported or turned away at the border during the year.
Interviews with the foreign media often triggered harassment. In June, shortly after his political rights were formally restored,former political prisoner Bao Tong, the highest-ranking official to be imprisoned in connection with the June 1989 protests, was given repeated warnings after he gave interviews to the U.S. print and broadcast media during President Clintons visit.
It was routine for public security officers to hold dissidents briefly in connection with the visits of foreign dignitaries. In Xian, for example, President Clintons first stop in China, police detained four people; they were released shortly afterwards. In September, democracy activists in Wuhan had their homes searched before the arrival in China of French Premier Lionel Jospin.
The Chinese government remained concerned about the potential for increased worker unrest, particularly with ongoing reforms of state enterprises that resulted in widespread layoffs, and officials moved quickly to stop activities in support of labor rights. Zhang Shanguang, founder of the Association to Protect Worker Rights, an organization set up to help laid-off state workers, was detained on July 21 and charged a month later with endangering state security. On August 24, Li Bifeng, a former tax official in Mianyang city, Sichuan province, was sentenced to seven years on a politically motivated fraud charge. Human rights organizations believe his real offense was to have informed international human rights groups about the violent dispersal by police of massive worker protests across Sichuan province.
Religious persecution continued, as did concern that unchecked religious practice was a threat to social stability. New regulations were adopted in Guangzhou city and Zhejiang province requiring religious communities to accept government control, restrict contact with overseas organizations, and register with authorities or face fines and other penalties. In May, Hunan provincial officials banned the indiscriminate establishment of temples and outdoor Buddha statues. In April and again in June, officials in Gansu invited underground Catholic clerics in at least two dioceses to week-long meetings to pressure them to join the officially recognized church. Some religious leaders who rejected state control of their activities were detained, usually under reeducation through labor provisions.
China made new efforts to control the flow of information. On December 30, 1997, draconian new regulations titled Administrative Measures for Ensuring the Security of Computer Information Technology, the Internet mandated fines as high as 15,000 renminbi (approximately U.S.$1,800 at the time) and threatened unspecified criminal punishments for use of the Internet agencies. In March 25, Lin Hai, a computer company manager, was detained in Shanghai and later charged with inciting to subvert the government for providing a U.S.-based dissident magazine with the e-mail addresses of 30,000 users in China. He was believed to be still in detention as of September, although the prosecutor had rejected the case for lack of evidence.
Media censorship continued. In August, the Chinese Communist Partys Central Committee announced restrictions on reporting corruption cases involving senior officials, hitherto unreported activities of deceased leaders, and immoral social phenomena. Earlier, officials limited independent reporting on natural disasters such as an earthquake in Hebei on January 11 and the disastrous floods along the Yangtze river. Chinese authorities also routinely interfered with reporting by foreign journalists.
As of October, China was reportedly planning to amend its adoption law, facilitating domestic adoptions. Such an amendment could significantly reduce the number of children in state orphanages, many of whom suffer from inadequate care.
On October 20 and 21, China hosted a two-day international symposium on human rights to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government used the meeting to argue against universal standards.
At least ten and possibly twelve prisoners reportedly died following two protests in Drapchi prison in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in May. The first protest took place on May 1, the second on May 4, on the day of a visit to the prison by ministers from the E.U. troika countries. During both, prisoners shouted slogans in support of independence and the Dalai Lama. In the weeks following the E.U. visit, scores of prisoners were interrogated, beaten, and placed in solitary confinement. Some of the prisoners were reported to have died in early June. Two reportedly were killed by gunfire during one of the protests, while others were said to have died from beatings. Authorities in Tibet maintained that many of the deaths were suicides. No independent investigation had taken place by the end of the year.
Details of retaliation against prisoners involved in a earlier protest during the visit of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in October 1997 became known in 1998. Three prisoners who shouted political slogans reportedly were beaten and held in solitary confinement for a lengthy period before having their prison terms extended between three and ten years.
Prison conditions in Tibet, as in China, were said to be poor, frequently resulting in prisoners ill-health. Some prisoners were also believed to have died as a result of punishment. Yeshe Samten, a monk, died on May 6, six days after he was released from Trisam prison, reportedly as a result of torture he had suffered during his two-year sentence. The E.U. ministers reported that they were told there were some 1,800 prisoners in Tibet, of whom some 200 were held for state security crimes. Unofficial figures are much higher.
A patriotic education campaign continued during the year designed to force Tibetans, especially monks and nuns, to denounce the Dalai Lama, accept the child recognized by Chinese authorities as the Panchen Lama, and admit that Tibet has always been a part of China. As a result of the campaign, authorities reported that 76 percent of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries had been rectified. Monks and nuns who refused to be educated faced expulsion.
It remained unclear as of October whether Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the nine-year-old boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, was under house arrest or some other form of custody, and there was conflicting information concerning his whereabouts and living conditions. Chinese authorities repeatedly denied requests, including by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, for access to the boy.
There were other worrying signs as well. In April, the provisional legislature hand-picked by China rushed through the Adaptation of Laws (Interpretive) Bill, a law that effectively transferred immunity from prosecution under local laws from the British Crown to the Chinese government. It followed on a controversial decisions by the SAR Department of Justice not to prosecute the Xinhua News Agency, Chinas front for the Communist Party in Hong Kong, for refusingd to turn over files on pro-democracy activist and former legislator Emily Lau as it was required to do under Hong Kongs Privacy Law. Local courts also ruled that Chinas National Peoples Congress had the right to override the Basic Law, the document worked out by Britain and China that functions as the SARs constitution. Two activists were convicted on public order grounds for defacing the national and SAR flags in May.
While the annual commemoration of the June 4 massacre passed without incident in Hong Kong, and demonstrations in general were permitted to go forward, many pointed out that no incident had occurred in 1998 that had really tested the one country, two systems principle. As the economy continued to worsen and the prospect of social unrest increased, the test might not be long in coming.
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Human RIghts Watch