Human Rights Watch today urged the People's Republic of China to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its founding by releasing all prisoners and detainees held for the peaceful expression of their views.

"China's history over the last half-century has been marked by the designation of new ‘enemies of the people' and the rehabilitation of old ones," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "This anniversary should be an occasion to declare a general amnesty for all and to start the next half-century—and the next millennium—on a sound human rights footing."

To do this, China would need to do the following:

Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed in October 1998, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed in October 1997, and move rapidly to reform China's laws to bring them into full conformity with these two U.N. treaties.

Overturn the official verdict on the 1989 pro-democracy movement; release those still detained for their peaceful involvement in it; and "rehabilitate" all those convicted of nonviolent offenses related to the 1989 demonstration, including those forced into exile abroad.

Institute a mechanism by which all prisoners and detainees convicted of "counterrevolutionary" crimes or crimes against the state can have their cases reviewed by an impartial board, with a view toward releasing and rehabilitating all those sentenced for peaceful political and religious activity.

Abolish the practice of reeducation through labor which enables individuals to be administratively detained in labor camps for periods of up to three years.

Open all court proceedings to the Chinese public and to international observers, and add to the Criminal Procedure Law a provision explicitly guaranteeing presumption of innocence until proven guilty as recommended by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Working Group visited China in 1997.

Allow independent monitoring of the Chinese prison system by international humanitarian organizations.

Proceed with efforts to make the judiciary more independent and free from political control.

Some of the ups and downs of China's human rights performance since 1949: Over the last fifty years, the People's Republic of China has undergone at least four major policy shifts as officials tried to define a path toward strength and prosperity. Each of these shifts—in 1957, 1961, 1966 and 1978—has had major human rights consequences. Each has been accompanied by cycles of political thaws and chills, as internal divisions or external pressure came into play. Each has created new political victims, and each led to new arguments on rights.

From 1949 to 1957, party policy was defined by class struggle, and class background shaped one's relationship to the state. Mass campaigns such as the "three anti" and "five anti" were directed against corrupt officials and the "bourgeois" classes. Peasants saw some social and economic rights enhanced, particularly with the implementation of land reform, but political rights for all remained tightly restricted. During the short-lived Hundred Flowers Campaign, the government encouraged intellectuals to criticize the party, but the campaign was followed by the mass purge in 1957 of people who had been courageous enough to speak out. An estimated 100,000 alleged "rightists" were arrested by public security forces and sent to labor camps. Rehabilitation came, in some cases, only after twenty years.

The period from 1957 through 1960 marked a shift to radical politics, when Mao Zedong moved away from the Soviet model of industrial revolution and embarked on the Great Leap Forward. Government-sponsored mass campaigns whipped up popular enthusiasm for communalized agriculture and the creation of back-yard steel furnaces, and fear instilled by the 1957 purges muted any form of criticism. Local officials who witnessed the disastrous effects of these policies were afraid to report to their superiors for the same reason, and millions of people are estimated to have died of starvation as a result. This was one case, as economist Amartya Sen has pointed out, where lack of freedom of expression led directly to widespread famine.

Politics turned again more moderate in 1961 when even Mao accepted the Great Leap's failure. Pragmatic leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping tried to improve the foundations of "socialist law" and downplayed class struggle. But the onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) spelled disaster for human rights. Liu Shaoqi, once president, was left to die in a house far from Beijing after being tortured. People with "bad" class backgrounds were jailed in makeshift lockups called "cowsheds"and now shared their fate with high officials who had fallen from grace. The number of people killed or driven to suicide during this period exceeds one million by most estimates, and an estimated 16 million were forced into the countryside in the largest forced internal exile in history.

The latest major policy shift took place in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping replaced the destructive concept of "class struggle" with a new policy of economic reform. That policy shift has brought tangible human rights benefits: improvements in living standards, greater freedom of movement, some reform of the legal system and a move toward less arbitrary application of the law. It has also led to greater political participation at the local level with village-level elections, although how significant those elections are is a matter of ongoing debate.

But it has also been marked by at least four cycles of opening and repression, around the Democracy Wall movement, 1979-81, the 1985-86 intellectual thaw, the 1989 democracy movement, and the "Beijing Spring" of 1997-98. China is now in the throes of the repressive phase of that cycle as officials are quick to crush any signs of political dissent or frontal challenges to party control. By arresting members of groups seen as posing such challenges, such as the China Democracy Party and the Falung Gong; by increasing controls on Internet access and other communications; by intensifying security in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia; and by cracking down on migrant workers, China is starting off its second half-century simply continuing the pattern of the past.