China's economic reforms, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, brought about tremendous changes. The changes were not just economic; they included greater personal freedom for much of the population and unprecedented growth in publications and social organizations. Today, some 200,000 social organizations are officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The number of newspapers and magazines has increased dramatically over the last two decades. But the Chinese government's policy of zero tolerance for political opposition remains firmly in place, in part because of its fear of the consequences of liberalization. "When you open the windows," the president of the state-run China Human Rights Association told foreign correspondents in Beijing in 1999, "flies and mosquitoes come in."1
Chinese government and Communist Party policy towards political opponents has not fundamentally changed since 1978 when Deng Xiaoping closed down Democracy Wall in Beijing. Democracy Wall was a nondescript stone structure in central Beijing on which people started putting up posters criticizing the Cultural Revolution. They then shifted the focus of their criticism to the government and Deng himself. In response, Deng laid down strict guidelines as to how far freedom of speech and assembly would be allowed to go. The official slogan, reflecting Deng's thinking, was "One Center, Two Fundamental Points." The "center" of Chinese policy was now economic construction, not class struggle. The two points were reform and the "Four Basic Principles" -- commitment to socialism; the thinking of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong; the leadership of the Communist Party; and the "dictatorship of the proletariat." The bottom line was and remains that no one would be allowed to challenge the CCP's monopoly on political power.
Officially, the CCP permits the existence of eight other parties.2 They are of little relevance, however, and only exist because they have sworn allegiance to the leadership of the CCP. They play an advisory rather than an oppositional role. Under the term "multiparty cooperation" (duo dang hezuo) they were incorporated into China's political structure to give an appearance of democracy.
The CCP is a Leninist party by nature and sees itself as the only legitimate holder of power. Its leaders argue that a multiparty system will trigger "chaos." They witnessed the factional struggles of the Cultural Revolution and how those struggles resulted in direct attacks on the state leaders as well as virtually complete destruction of the government apparatus. CCP leaders now assert that China will never adopt a western-style multiparty system (duo dang zhi).3
Over the years, many individuals and groups have nevertheless tried to form political organizations independent of the CCP. Unlike the CDP, however, they did not try to achieve legal recognition or develop a nationwide base. In attempting both of these, the CDP organizers drew on a network of activists, including some who had been challenging China's leadership since the Democracy Wall period. Xu Wenli, one of the most prominent, had been sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 1981 for his defense of democracy, and other leading CDP members had been active in the 1989 democracy movement.
The crackdown against the CDP resulted in violations of freedom of expression and association and the right not be arbitrarily detained. These freedoms are enshrined in Articles 19, 20, and 9 respectively of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in Articles 19, 22, and 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 35 of the Chinese constitution also guarantees the right to freedom of expression and association, and Article 37 protects Chinese citizens against arbitrary detention.4
As a member of the United Nations, China is obliged to uphold the principles of the Universal Declaration. At the time the arrests of CDP members began, China had not yet signed the ICCPR. The Chinese government signed the treaty in October 1998, ostensibly indicating its commitment to respect its provisions, but the arrests and trials of CDP activists continued.
1 Zhu Muzhi during a meeting organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club of China in April1999, referring to people with views differing from the official CCP line.
2 The Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (Zhongguo guomindang geming weiyuanhui), the China Democratic League (Zhongguo minzhu tongmeng), the China Democratic National Construction Association (Zhongguo minzhu jianguo hui), the China Association for Promoting Democracy (Zhongguo minzhu cujin hui), the Chinese Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party (Zhongguo nong gong minzhu dang), the Party for Public Interests (Zhongguo zhi gong dang), the September 3 Society (Jiu san xueshe) and the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League (Taiwan minzhu zizhi tongmeng).
3 Li Peng quoted by Xinhua News Agency, December 1, 1998.
4 Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile." Article 19 states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Article 20 (1) states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association." Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states, " Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention." Article 19 of the ICCPR states "(1) Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. (2) Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. (3) The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals." Article 22 says "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those which are prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Article 35 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China Adopted at the First Session of the Seventh National People's Congress on March 29,1993, states, "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." Article 37 states, "Freedom of the person of citizens of the People's Republic of China is inviolable. No citizens may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a people's procuratorate or by decision of a people's court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful detention or deprivation or restriction of citizens' freedom of the person by other means is prohibited, and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited."