Why was the government response to the China Democracy Party so harsh? Its members had never used or advocated violence. Their weapons were faxes, e-mails, and public declarations. They were determined to raise issues of democratic reform and exercise rights guaranteed in two international human rights treaties that China had just signed. What Chinese authorities were calling efforts to subvert state power, most people would have called advocacy of peaceful political change.
By Chinese standards, moreover, this was a tiny group of people, probably never numbering more than 200 activists at its height. Most had a history of openly challenging official policy, with some 70 percent having been active during the 1989 pro-democracy movement. A smaller group, including many of the leaders, had been active during the 1979 Democracy Wall movement. They were represented in all but three of China's twenty-seven provinces, with a particularly strong presence in Hangzhou (at least seventy members) and Shanghai (at least twenty members). But in part because of the risks involved in overt confrontation with the authorities, the CDP was never likely to attract a mass following.
What, then, did the government fear? It was clearly concerned about possible unrest as a series of sensitive anniversaries approached, in particular the tenth anniversary of June 4, 1989, and the fiftieth anniversary of the PRC on October 1, 1999. Added to this was a chain of unexpected events which caused authorities in Beijing to be more nervous than usual. On April 25, 1999 the Falun Gong spiritual meditation group staged a massive protest around Zhongnanhai, the residential compound of the Chinese leadership. On May 7, 1999 the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade generated a new wave of nationalism and anti-West emotion. It was not coincidental that the authorities, who often saw demands for multiparty democracy as evidence of negative influences from the West, made a point in the trials of CDP members of stressing their contacts with foreigners or "hostile outside forces."
However, it was not just bad timing which made the Chinese government respond so harshly. It clearly saw the demands of the CDP activists as undermining the very core of the Communist Party's guiding principles.
Violating Freedom of Association
The government crackdown against the CDP is an example of how the Chinese Communist Party uses the law, implemented by judicial and public security organs, to prevent the exercise of freedom of association. After the Cultural Revolution, for example, some people, dissatisfied with the new policies which effectively undermined Mao Zedong's ideas of socialism, tried to set up parties supporting the "Gang of Four," a leftist political group headed by Mao's wife, Jiang Qing. Others, aiming for new freedoms, tried to set up parties which resembled western-style opposition parties and aimed either to challenge the CCP or to establish a western-style multiparty democracy. None ever had more than a few dozen members, and none survived.
· In 1987, a Chinese People's Democratic Party (Zhongguo Renmin Minzhu Dang, CPDP) was established in Fujian province. The founders, Li Jingdong, Chen Shanhui and Pan Guihui, from Ningde in Fujian province, formulated a party charter and established the "CPDP's Fujian and Zhejiang's Temporary Provincial Committee" and the "East Fujian Special Committee." The party had its own flag and at least thirty-five active members, all of whom had to take an oath. The group set up factories to fund itself. In 1989, the CPDP, in hundreds of posters, criticized the PLA's 1989 crackdown against peaceful protesters in Beijing. Seven of its organizers were then accused of "setting up a counterrevolutionary group" and imprisoned; no information is available on their sentences.107 While the specific charges against them are not known, they seem likely to have been convicted of "organizing counterrevolutionary groups," under an article of the penal code then commonly used to punish political dissent. It carried a penalty of ten years in prison to life imprisonment.
· In mid-1991, three students, Wei Guanjun, Chen Xiangrong, and Xiong Jiang, established a Chinese People's Party (Zhongguo Renmin Dang, CPP). The organizers had designed a "council" for the party and appointed Wei as "chairman"; other posts included a "chief of finance," a "chief of security" and a "chief of propaganda." The party issued essays, such as "An Angry Cry" (Fennu de hushen) and "Appeal to the Entire Nation" (Gao quanti guomin shu), in which they called for social transformation. Wei Guanjun was sentenced to twelve years in prison and three years' deprivation of political rights, Chen Xiangrong to six years in prison and one year's deprivation of political rights. Both were charged with the crime of "organizing a counterrevolutionary group." Xiong Jiang was sentenced to three years in prison and one year deprivation of political rights for the "crime of actively joining a counterrevolutionary group."108 Human Rights Watch has no further details of the case.
· In 1993, the Democratic Youth Party (Minzhu qingnian dang), with 179 members, was active in Kai Xian in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area in Wanxian Prefecture, Chongqing. It is not clear what the objectives of the party were or what was the fate of the organizers, although there were reports that they were arrested in connection with protests against the population resettlement policies connected with the construction of Three Gorges Dam.109
· On July 14, 1994, sixteen dissidents belonging to the Liberal Democratic Party of China (Zhongguo ziyou minzhu dang, LDPC), some of whom also belonged to the China Progressive Alliance (Zhonghua jinbu tongmeng, CPA), and a group promoting labor rights, the Free Labor Union of China, were sentenced to heavy jail terms. This was the largest group trial since the prosecution of dissidents three and a half years earlier in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The heaviest sentences were meted out to LDPC founders Kang Yuchun and Hu Shigen: they were sentenced to seventeen- and twenty-year prison terms respectively on charges of "organizing a counterrevolutionary group." Kang was also accused of being one of the founders, on June 27, 1991, of the China Progressive Alliance and of being instrumental in drafting its political program (thereby illustrating the interlocking nature of many of these dissident organizations). The crackdown against these groups formed part of a larger, nationwide suppression of dissident organizations which had started in 1992. The groups were established by people who had apparently been encouraged by Deng Xiaoping's famous tour to southern China in January 1992, during which he reinvigorated the economic reforms which had ground to a halt after the 1989 crackdown. Dissidents mistakenly thought the time was now ripe to advocate for political reforms as well.110
· In 1999, Chinese local press reported that China XX Great Army South West Yangzi River Column (Zhongguo xx da jun xi nan changjiang zongdui) had been established in Chongqing. The group, composed of peasants, had established an organizational structure and appointed ministers of departments, a politburo, an organization department, and a propaganda department. According to unofficial reports, this organization was created by people critical of official corruption. The official Chinese account, however, states that the members "were responsible for reactionary slogans and poetry that appeared in public places in twenty villages and townships" in the Chongqing region. On August 8, Yang Jiahua and eight other founders were detained and charged with "subversion of state power."111 Their sentences are not known.
What distinguished the above groups from the CDP was that each had a relatively narrow geographic focus and little contact with organizations outside China, as opposed to the nationwide network of CDP and its sophisticated means of communication. None of the above, unlike the CDP, ever tried to secure formal legal status. Even so, their members also paid a heavy price for political action.
It is also worth comparing the Chinese government response to the CDP with its response to two other groups that emerged about the same time: the China Development Union (CDU) and the Falun Gong. The first called itself a non-governmental organization; the second was a mass movement with tens of thousands of members. Neither was overtly political in orientation. Leaders of both were arrested, but there were interesting differences in the government's attitude toward the groups as a whole.
Formally, the CDU "aimed to promote the green peace movement in China." Members stressed repeatedly they were not a political party. Indeed, they were not seeking recognition as a party and did not field candidates, seek political office or a share in power.
But, in fact, the CDU had a party-like organization. During its "First National Congress," which was held in Beijing on October 4 and 5, 1998, "Forty-five delegates representing 3,058 CDU members passed [the] "Constitution of [the] China Development Union" [...] and elected the first leading organs."112 An elaborate bureaucratic structure was created, with a leadership consisting of thirty people.113 The organization was formally prohibited in October 1998 when employees of the Ministry of Civil Affairs went to its office and stated that the organization was illegal. However, members went on with activities, giving interviews to foreign journalists and issuing statements. On November 1, its main leaders, Peng Ming, Wang Yun, and Wen Dehao, were stopped at the Shenzhen-Lowu border and held for four hours. The CDU offices in Beijing were searched and equipment confiscated; the CDU office in Chifeng, Inner-Mongolia was reportedly searched as well, with ten members subjected to questioning on November 16.114
Most CDU leaders then faced more police harassment and detention. Peng Ming, the founder and chairman, was sentenced to eighteen months in administrative detention on January 25, 1999, but not for subverting state power or any other political crime. He was charged instead with "soliciting prostitutes," a crime that carries an administrative penalty of up to three years in prison. He was released on August 9, 2000. Qi Yanchen, editor of the CDU's magazine, Consult (Canzhao), faced a secret trial in March 2000 for publishing parts of a book, The Collapse of China (Zhongguo de Bengkui), which discussed political reform, on the Internet. Qi Yanchen is still awaiting a verdict as this report goes to print, but like Peng Ming, the charges brought against him did not relate directly to the CDU's activities.115 In general, CDU members received much less severe penalties than those of the CDP, possibly because the CDU never explicitly saw itself as a political challenge to the Communist Party.116
The Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that has been active since 1994. It is based on Buddhist and Daoist teachings combined with breathing exercises called qigong, but was criticized in the official press for convincing followers that Falun Gong practices could cure certain ailments. It gained worldwide attention with its response to that criticism -- a silent demonstration of more than 10,000 people in the center of Beijing on April 25, 1999, the largest protest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. There had reportedly been more than twenty earlier protests in various places in China, also against official criticism, but these went largely unnoticed. The government was clearly unnerved by the size and strength of the Falun Gong organization, not only because it had a mass following but because it reached up into the highest ranks of the government. As a result, perhaps, the punishment meted out was even more severe than for the CDP members. The heaviest sentence for a Falun Gong leader was eighteen years in prison, compared to thirteen for a CDP leader.
107 Fujian sheng zhi (Fujian Provincial Records) 1999, pp. 22, 23.
108 Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xianxing falu panli fenxi quanshu (Encyclopedia of Current Chinese Legal Analysis), 1995, pp. 1166-1168. The current situation of Wei Guanjun, Chen Xiangrong and Xiong Jiang is not known. Wei is supposed to be released in the year 2003; the others were due to be released in 2000.
109 Human Rights Watch/Asia: China: Three Gorges Dam, Forced Resettlement, Suppression of Dissent and Labor Rights Concerns. February 1995.
110 See Human Rights Watch Detained in China and Tibet...
111 Yangcheng wanbao (Yangcheng Evening News), August 26, 1999. A Hong Kong based human rights organization reported that the "XX" stood for "Anti-Corruption." Interestingly, the Article describes the group as a "reactionary farce" (fandong nauju) but shuns the word "antirevolutionary." Fandong used to be a term reserved for the Nationalist Kuomintang.
112 Pamphlet spread by the China Development Union in October 1998, on file at Human Rights Watch. In total, twenty-one members of an "executive committee" were elected; five "secretaries" of an "executive bureau" and seven "committee members" of a "supervisory committee." In total seven sub-offices and "departments" were created within the CDU among which were a "propaganda department" and an "organization department" and Consult magazine, the official publication of the CDU.
114 "Chinese Police Question Dissident Intellectual, Detain Six Others," Associated Press, November 23, 1998.
115 "China Puts Democracy Advocate On Trial, No Verdict," Associated Press, May 30, 2000.
116 When the CDU was active, unconfirmed reports spoke of links between the organization and the Chinese government but Human Rights Watch has found no proof supporting the validity of this charge.