The scope of political repression in China is well known. But it affects Chinese citizens in many ways, and not only dissidents are victims of abuse.
Just last week, eight members of a book club were detained in Hunan province ?not for reading banned books, or inviting dissidents to speak ?but simply for holding a meeting without government permission. According to the wife of the book club's founder, Mr. Xiao Qingming, a former middle school teacher, the meeting was shut down because the book club had failed to register with the authorities.
This rather bizarre incident is symptomatic of human rights conditions in China. On the one hand, there are now thousands of social organizations of all kinds, including consumer groups, environmental organizations, women's groups, and so on. They are allowed to function under official auspices of some kind ?so long as they register with the government.
In China today, freedom of association remains tightly controlled. Any group ?a trade union, a religious congregation, an anti-corruption monitoring group, or even a book club, it seems ?can get into trouble if it tries to operate independently.
The leadership of the Chinese Communist Party seems obsessed with maintaining its grip on political power, while at the same time trying to prop up its credibility by promoting economic reforms and market openings. The preoccupation with preserving social stability is a perennial aspect of one-party rule, but it has been fueled in recent years by a rise in worker and farmer protests, serious urban unemployment, and separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang. It is also related to the succession struggle now underway in Beijing in the run up to next year's Communist Party Congress.
Strike Hard" Anti-Crime Campaign:
Last December, as China's leaders became increasingly worried about growing social unrest, top officials began sounding the alarm, warning that China's entry into the World Trade Organization might trigger even greater unrest and instability. Wei Jianxing, a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Party's Central Committee, urged public security and judicial departments to crack down on "hostile forces both at home and abroad, elements that undermine ethnic unity, key members of cult organizations, criminal offenders and economic crime offenders," according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency (December 2, 2000).
Then, this past January, police officials called on all cities to beef up their anti-riot police, complaining that existing anti-riot police were poorly trained and equipped and "hardly capable of maintaining social peace and stability." Following the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989, a paramilitary police force was created to handle large-scale protests. China's major cities are required to create anti-riot units of at least 300 officers. Meanwhile, the city of Beijing, as part of its bid to host the Olympics in 2008, has touted the creation of a new anti-terrorist squad, designed to prevent terrorist groups from disrupting the games.
Finally, the leadership gathered for a two-day National Public Order Work Meeting in Beijing on April 2, and, on April 3, President Jiang Zemin announced the launching of another major "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign, making it clear that the authorities are determined to preserve social stability at all costs. The first such anti-crime campaign took place in 1983. Local authorities are given broad discretion to crack down on organization crime and corruption, suspected separatists, dissidents and others, using expedited arrest, trial and sentencing procedures. In the past, these campaigns have resulted in large-scale human rights abuses as even the minimal protections and legal safeguards in Chinese law are disregarded, and arbitrary arrests and summary executions become routine.
"The drive is not an expedient response to the recent explosions and other violence crimes, but a long-term endeavor to achieve the ultimate goal of improving China's public order," said Xiao Yang, president of People's Supreme Court said, according to Xinhua.
Already there has been an upsurge in arrests and executions. Amnesty International has cited China as the world's leading executioner, with at least 1,263 executions in 1999 and 2,088 death sentences, many obtained through unfair trials and the use of torture to extract confessions. Many are given the death sentence for violent crimes. With the "Strike Hard" campaign underway, the government-controlled media is putting the public spotlight on the tough official response. On one day alone in April, it said at least 37 persons were executed and 50 sentenced to death in several cities across the country. Mass rallies took place in cities in Guangdong province to announce the formal arrests of 5,485 people "suspected of involvement in organized crime, drug trafficking, and murder," the official media declared.
Ongoing Human Rights Violations:
But even before "Strike Hard," throughout the past year the Chinese government systematically suppressed independent political activities of all kinds. It tightened controls on unofficial religious activity as potentially subversive, while singling out the Falun Gong meditation group for particularly harsh repression. Members of the China Democracy Party have been given prison terms ranging from five to ten years.
Some of the worst abuses continued to occur in the ethnic minority areas, including Tibet and Xinjiang. In Tibet, Chinese authorities suppressed suspected "splittist" activities and exerted control over Tibet Buddhist religious institutions. Detention of monks and nuns for their peaceful pro-independence activities continued. China's vice president, Hu Jintao, speaking at the National People's Congress in March, said that "while legal religious activities...will be protected, illegal activities under the cover of religion must be resolutely stopped and punishment according to law."
In Xinjiang, the "Strike Hard" campaign is aimed at suspected religious fundamentalists, violent terrorists, and "splittists." Last September, Premier Zhu Rongji visited Xinjiang and called for an "iron fist" approach to such groups. Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned about Rebiya Kadeer, sentenced in March 2000 to eight years in prison. Once again, we call for her immediate and unconditional release and the release of her secretary, Kahriman Abdukerim, serving a three year administrative sentence. Ms. Kadeer's son was freed from a reeducation through labor camp this past February.
Some recent examples of the ongoing, widespread abuses of internationally recognized human rights in China:
?Crackdown on Falun Gong:
On July 22, 1999 the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which registers all social organizations, labeled Falun Gong an illegal organization and accused it of spreading "superstition" and "endangering social stability." Thousands of Falun Gong members have been sent to reeducation through labor camps, though most have served only brief terms, then been released and returned to their home villages. Those considered the dangerous ring leaders or organizers have been given stiff prison terms.
Most recently, on April 24, a Falun Gong practitioner, Ms. Zhang Xueling, whose story was featured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Wall Street Journal, was reportedly sentenced to three years in a labor camp for "using a cult to undermine the implementation of law." Zhang had protested the reported beating death of her mother (also a Falun Gong member) by police last year. At this past March's meeting of the National People's Congress, Premier Zhu Rongji made it clear that the fierce crackdown on Falun Gong will continue. He denounced the group as "anti-human" and said Falun Gong was being used by "domestic and overseas forces hostile to our socialist government."
?Controls on the Internet:
Over the past year, new regulations and controls have been imposed on use of the Internet, including censorship of foreign news sites, the creation of special Internet police, and actions to shut down Internet sites posting information on corruption or articles critical of government. Internet cafes are required to register and inform the police about their customers. The Ministry of State Security has installed tracking devices on Internet service providers to monitor individual email accounts. And bulletin boards critical of the government have been shut down.
On June 3, 2000 a computer engineer named Huang Qi, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, was detained for setting up China's first domestic human rights web site. It began as an electronic bulletin board to help trace missing persons, then last year was used to post messages on the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Huang Qi was officially charged with subversion. When he was first detained, Human Rights Watch asked U.S. companies involved with the Internet in China to intervene on his behalf, to urge the government not to put him on trial. This was at the height of the debate over Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for China, when some U.S. business groups claimed they were "sowing the seeds of democracy" by their presence in China.
But to our knowledge, no company was willing to intervene, even privately, with Chinese officials. We also asked the World Bank to intervene, since the Bank says it is interested in promoting more openness in China through free exchange of information via the Internet. When Huang Qi went on trial in February, the American consulate in Chengdu and the European Union tried to send diplomatic observers to the trial, but they were turned away. The trial was suddenly adjourned when Huang Qi was taken ill. It has yet to resume.
In mid-March, Yang Zili, another young computer specialist, was detained in Beijing by state security officials; his present whereabouts and legal status are unknown. While a student, he had set up a discussion group, and he also ran a website for exchange of ideas among intellectuals which was shut down after his arrest. Mr. Yang was known for his ability to run rings around firewalls and other government attempts to censor the Internet.
?Violations of workers rights:
Violations of basic workers rights in China are an urgent concern that require greater attention by the international community. On February 28, 2001, China ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, an important UN human rights treaty. However, it took a reservation on part of a key provision in Article 8 of the treaty, covering workers' right to form and join trade unions of their choosing. China's laws currently recognize only one government-sponsored workers' organization, the All China Federation of Trade Unions. All attempts to organize independent unions have been systematically crushed.
For example, Zhang Shanguang tried to organize a free labor union in Hunan province. He was sentenced to ten years in prison in 1998, charged with endangering state security. Cao Maobing tried to organize workers in a silk factory in Jiangsu province; he was detained and is now being kept in a mental hospital.
Yet it is in China's long term interest to allow greater freedom of association by Chinese workers. The dismantling of state-run enterprises has already created more than 20 million unemployed. Once China joins the WTO, pressures will increase on dislocated workers who risk losing medical, educational, housing and other work-related benefits. Disgruntled workers will have no other option but to take to the streets if they cannot peacefully organize to protect their rights and interests. The U.S. and other major trading partners should urge Beijing to immediately accept the offer of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to send a direct contact mission to China to help reform its labor laws and practices to bring them into conformity with ILO standards on the basic right of free association.
?Hong Kong (Special Autonomous Region):
Hong Kong is facing a crucial test of its "one country, two systems" formula. I was in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and the SAR's solicitor general assured me that so long as Falun Gong members obeyed Hong Kong's laws, they could function freely in Hong Kong. Yet Mr. C.H. Tung, Hong Kong's chief executive, has repeatedly threatened the organization, using the same rhetoric to attack it as is used in Beijing. This has raised fears among many that if Jiang Zemin was embarrassed by the Falun Gong protests during his visit to Hong Kong to speak at an international business conference on May 8-10, the group may also be banned in Hong Kong, or that Falun Gong's activities could be used as a pretext to pressure Hong Kong to enact an anti-subversion law or an anti-cult law. Jiang used his speech to criticize those "creating tension" in Hong Kong. Although SAR authorities did allow Falun Gong members and pro-democracy activists to demonstrate, more than 100 Falun Gong members ?including some U.S. citizens ?were banned from entering Hong Kong. Donald Tsang, the SAR's chief secretary, defended the government's overreaction by referring vaguely to "undesirable elements" who were kept out.
?Detained China Scholars:
Another threat to Hong Kong's long term autonomy is the detention of several China scholars, two of them Hong Kong-based, while traveling in the mainland. This has already had a chilling affect in Hong Kong, where cross border academic exchanges and business ties are vital for the SAR's continued prosperity and development.
On May 7, over 100 Hong Kong-based academics signed an open letter calling for the release of the scholars, including Prof.. Li Shaomin, a U.S. citizen teaching business at the City University of Hong Kong. He was picked up by the Chinese police when he went across the border into Shenzhen on February 25, 2001. Mr. Li also ran an Internet company in south China. Though the U.S. has been given consular access to him, his detention remains unexplained. The authorities say he is being interrogated on suspicion of spying for Taiwan.
Nearly 700 leading academics worldwide ?from Hong Kong, the U.S., Australia, Japan, Europe, and elsewhere ?have sent a similar appeal to President Jiang, expressing deep concern about Prof. Li; also, raising concern about the detention of Dr. Gao Zhan, a permanent resident of the U.S. and research scholar based at American University held since February 11 and apparently charged with spying; and Dr. Xu Zerong, a former legal resident of Hong Kong detained last October. (See the text of this extraordinary appeal, attached).
We welcomed President Bush's public statement last week, urging China to treat fairly U.S. citizens who have been detained, while also supporting expanded economic ties with China. Clearly, the U.S. should continue to speak up, and to work through private diplomatic channels at senior levels to clarify these cases, and those of other detained U.S. citizens or permanent residents -- including the businessman, Liu Yaping, a U.S. permanent resident, who is detained in Inner Mongolia and apparently has serious health problems.
U.S. policy on human rights in China:
If China is to be a reliable trading partner, the rule of law is essential, and China's government must demonstrate its willingness to observe international rules and standards. This includes international rules and standards ?which Beijing says it supports ?governing respect for fundamental human rights. What are some of the effective steps the U.S. could take to encourage greater respect for human rights in China?
1) First, the Administration should work out a multilateral strategy with other countries and with the United Nations. This is even more urgently needed in the wake of developments over the past several weeks.
Human Rights Watch supported the U.S. effort at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva to promote a resolution critical of China's human rights record. However, a dismal failure of political will again led the Commission to endorse China's procedural motion to kill the resolution before its substance could even be debated. The motion was adopted, with 23 voting for, 17 against, and 12 abstentions with one government absent.
Notwithstanding the loss of a U.S. seat on the Commission, we urge the Administration to remain active and outspoken on China at the Commission and in other UN bodies. Even without having a place on the Commission, the U.S. can still put forward and cosponsor ?with other governments holding a seat ?country resolutions.
And the U.S. should certainly remain active through diplomatic channels, for instance working with other governments to press China to accept a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and ill-treatment. The U.N. rights expert has been trying to negotiate a visit for nearly two years.
2) Secondly, we hope that the Congressional leadership and the President will move quickly to appoint the members of a special Congressional-Executive Commission on China to monitor and report on human rights, labor rights, religious freedom and carry out other activities to highlight abuses in China. This commission, modeled on the Helsinki commission, was mandated under the PNTR law enacted last year, but it has not yet been appointed or hired staff. A first report is due this October.
We urge the Administration and Congress to strengthen the commission by significantly increasing its budget ?only a paltry $500,000 was appropriated for this first start-up year's operations ?and by adopting legislation requiring an annual debate and vote on the commission's report and its policy recommendations. It would also be extremely useful if a delegation of commission members could travel to China this summer in advance of President Bush's visit to Shanghai for the APEC summit in late October. We have recommended that the commission post some of its staff at the U.S. embassy in Beijing and in Lhasa, Tibet. (See Asian Wall Street Journal article, attached.)
3) Finally, we strongly support the passage of legislation with a code of conduct for American companies ?and their suppliers and subcontractors ?operating in China, to assure U.S. consumers and shareholders that at a minimum, they are fully respecting the rights of their workers. With China poised to enter the WTO this year, giving American companies a major incentive to invest, it is crucial that U.S. businesses do everything they can to promote respect for basic rights. Such a code should include principles dealing with child labor, the use of bonded labor and forced labor to manufacture goods in prison or labor camps, protection of the right of freedom of association and assembly by workers, and a ban on discrimination in hiring or promotion based on labor, political or religious activity.