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HRW Academic Freedom Committee's Letter to President Clinton

President Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C.

Dear President Clinton:

We understand that during your upcoming state visit to China you will be delivering a speech at Beijing University and will make an appearance at Tiananmen Square as part of the Chinese government's welcoming ceremony. On behalf of the Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee, a group of scholars and academic leaders organized in 1991 to protest restrictions on academic freedom and abuse of the basic rights of educators and students worldwide, we urge that you use every opportunity afforded by your visit, in particular your speech at Beijing University, to speak out forcefully in support of academic freedom and the basic rights of the scholarly community in China.

Your public endorsement of academic freedom will have immense symbolic importance for Chinese scholars and students. As you know, academics and students at Beijing University and elsewhere have long played a leading role in the push for democracy and freedom in China, from the May Fourth movement of 1919 to the Tiananmen Square democracy movement of 1989. In both 1919 and 1989, many of China's leading scholars and students called for "Democracy and Science," realizing that the freedom to pursue research and scholarship unfettered by censorship and persecution cannot be separated from basic political freedoms. The following comments, published in 1995, still hold: "A dictatorship is never interested in academic freedom. This is because such freedom represents the most effective constraint on power; it is an uncontrollable source of potential opposition . . . . Why is it that people who do research and are involved in education have always conflicted with [authoritarian rule]? The answer is quite simple: the basic spirit and methods of science require free research, which directly conflicts with an ideology of tyranny." (Fang Lizhi, "China: Academic Freedom and Ideological Barriers.")

Although Chinese citizens and scholars enjoy more freedom of expression and greater liberty to comment on political subjects than they did in the years immediately following the suppression of the pro-democracy movement at Tiananmen Square and throughout China in 1989, the authorities continue to imprison dissidents and to impose far-reaching ideological controls on the academic community. Your visit to Beijing University presents you with the opportunity to deliver a message to the tens of thousands of Chinese scientists, scholars, and students who cherish intellectual freedom and know firsthand the costs of political intolerance and repression for the development of Chinese science and society. If you are silent, you will send a message of tacit endorsement for the Chinese authorities' repressive policies. If you publicly emphasize the close connection between scholarly autonomy and protection of citizens' basic right to free expression, and publicly draw attention to the cases of Chinese academics still in prison for expressing their views, you will send a strong message of support to those in China who have been most courageous in standing for freedom.

A university earns respect and achieves intellectual excellence when academics are not forced to support a government, an economic agenda, or a political ideology, but rather are free to use their talents to advance human knowledge and understanding. In China, that freedom is fettered by damaging ideological and institutional constraints, the imprisonment of critical academics, and foreign exile and denial of re-entry to those who freely speak their minds.

Ideological and Institutional Controls

Ideological surveillance remains a significant barrier to intellectual freedom in China. This is not simply the legacy of decades past. In 1997, the government introduced a host of new regulations and restrictions expressly aimed at strengthening ideological training and Communist Party control over universities in China.

  • In January 1997, the government announced new censorship regulations, effective February 1, banning all publications that questioned the legitimacy of communist rule or were not in line with "socialist morality."
  • In April 1997, the government announced arbitrary new restrictions on public opinion research, household surveys, and studies of demographics, important tools for understanding citizens' attitudes toward economic reform and other social and political issues.
  • A memo from the Propaganda Ministry, the Office of the Secretary of the Politburo, and the Office of the State Council, also made public in April 1997, announced that all social science projects involving foreign funding henceforth would require approval from the Public Security Bureau and National Security and Foreign ministries. The new restrictions coincided with a campaign at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences against "theories and opinions that are against Marxism, the leadership of the Party and the people's democratic dictatorship
  • In June 1997, the well-publicized Sixth National Conference on Party Building in Institutions of Higher Education called on all members of the academic community to firmly pursue the party's line, principles, and policies, echoing a government decree issued in October 1996 ordering university administrators to consult campus-based Communist Party representatives on all major decisions.
  • Also in June, academics in Beijing were ordered to inform the police in advance if they planned to hold conferences attended by more than twenty participants, regardless of location. Scholars wishing to engage in exchange programs or joint activities with foreign and Taiwanese institutions were required to secure prior permission from the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Public Security, and the State Education Commission, as well as from local, campus-based Communist Party committees.
  • New controls on the Internet also were introduced in 1997, requiring all Internet service providers to apply for licenses from the authorities and provide data on the scope and nature of their activities. Meanwhile, dozens of World Wide Web sites that had been proscribed and electronically blocked by the government in 1996, including those of overseas-based dissident groups and human rights organizations, remain inaccessible to the country's estimated several hundred thousand Internet users.
  • Finally, the Chinese government continues to deny visas and research access to overseas scholars, including many prominent American sinologists, whose works the government finds ideologically or politically objectionable.

Arrest and Imprisonment of Critical Academics

Although the China National People's Congress in 1997 removed the counterrevolutionary acts provision from the criminal code and replaced it with "endangering state security," and although the Chinese government has released a number of dissidents in the past year, numerous proponents of democratic reform remain behind bars. Although we are unable to present a complete list of cases because the government strictly limits access to information on political prisoners, individual cases that you should raise with Chinese authorities include:

  • Chen Lantao, a thirty-seven year-old marine biologist, was sentenced in 1989 to eighteen years in jail, with five years subsequent deprivation of political rights. Although he was charged with "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement" (since dropped from the criminal code) and "disturbing the social order and traffic," Chen apparently was arrested for a speech delivered just days after the June fourth incident in which he excoriated the government for the crackdown and called for political reform.
  • Ngawang Choephel, a thirty-five-year-old U.S.-based Tibetan ethnomusicologist, was sentenced in December 1996 to eighteen years in prison by a Lhasa court for alleged "espionage" in connection with research he had been carrying out in Tibet.
  • Li Hai, a former philosophy student from Beijing University who had been detained incommunicado since May 1995, was sentenced in late 1996 to nine years in prison on state secrets-related charges for compiling a list of names and other details of Beijing residents still in prison in connection with the 1989 pro-democracy movement.
  • In January 1997, five prominent dissidents from Guiyang, detained since mid-1995 for advocating democratic reform, were tried and sentenced for alleged "subversive activities." Chen Xi, leader of the group and a lecturer at Guizhou Jinzhu University, received a ten-year prison term. The other men received sentences ranging from two to five years.
  • Two members of the Southern Mongolian Democratic Alliance, Hada and Tegexi, were sentenced to fifteen and ten years in prison respectively on charges of separatism and espionage on December 6, 1996, had their appeals rejected in late January 1997. Both are being held in a crowded cell in Inner Mongolia No.1 Prison. The two were part of a group of ten intellectuals arrested in late 1995 for their association with the Alliance, a social organization to promote Mongolian culture and "the concept of a high degree of autonomy for China's minorities as guaranteed by the constitution." In two peaceful protests following the arrests, some 200 people including university students and teachers demonstrated their support for those arrested. Police broke up the demonstrations and held more than several dozen for questioning. Hada and his wife managed the Mongolian Academic Bookshop in Hohhot. The bookstore was closed after Hada's arrest and its contents confiscated. His wife has twice petitioned two government agencies to permit her to reopen it. Neither agency has replied.
  • Wang Youcai, No. 15 on the government's most wanted students list after the 1989 pro-democracy movement and a former Beijing University student, was held for eight days beginning on April 27, 1998, when he tried to participate in the celebration of Beijing University's one-hundredth anniversary. To keep him from contact with current students, Wang was returned to Hangzhou on April 28 and held until May 5.

Forced Exile

The Chinese authorities also continue to violate the basic civil and political rights of Chinese intellectuals who dare to express their views by sending them into forced exile and by denying them permission to visit academic colleagues, family, and friends in China. As you know, dissident leaders Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan were among those released into forced exile in the past year. They are just two of dozens of exiles who are prohibited from returning to China. Until all Chinese are free to express their views in China, the release of dissidents cannot be called an unqualified victory for democracy or human rights.

Many other Chinese now residing overseas face harassment upon return to China. Most recently, Li Xiaorong, a researcher at the University of Maryland who now holds an American passport, flew to China in early April 1998 to visit her parents. She had just arrived at her parents' house in Sichuan province when the police came and took her away, driving her to the airport that night. She believes that she was forced out of the country as a result of her active support of human rights in China.

By speaking frankly on the above subjects during your speech at Beijing University and at every other opportunity afforded by your visit to China, you can send a strong signal of support to the Chinese academic community and to advocates of freedom and democracy both in China and abroad.

Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.
Sincerely yours,

/s/ Fang Lizhi
Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee Professor of Physics,
University of Arizona
/s/ Jonathan F. Fanton
Co-Chair, Human Rights Watch Academic Freedom Committee President, New
School for Social Research

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