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14-09-05, 20:26
China under new assault on human rights

Gady A. Epstein - Sun Foreign Staff

September 14, 2005


http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/nationworld/balte.china14sep14,1,196859.story

BEIJING - After meeting privately yesterday in New York, Chinese President Hu Jintao and President Bush made no mention of a topic that Hu has made increasingly important within China: human rights.
For the past year, Hu has presided over what activists, scholars and journalists here call the nation's most severe crackdown in years on dissent.

Citizen activists, enterprising journalists, outspoken academics, and lawyers pushing for rule of law have been jailed or intimidated or lost their jobs in a series of high-profile cases, dashing hopes for reforms that followed the ascension of Hu and a new generation of leaders in the last three years.

"Everything has taken a turn for the worse," said Nicolas Becquelin, research director in Hong Kong for New York-based Human Rights in China. "Basically you have to wait for the next generation [of leaders] to hope for political reform."

The arrests and harassment of an array of leading rights figures illustrate a darker side of a country that otherwise projects an image of an increasingly attractive, dynamic place to do business. In fact, critics say, the two faces of China are closely connected, for as China's global influence grows, other nations' pressure to improve its dismal human rights record appears to wane.

"China's economic power is rising and now the Chinese regime is using that economic power to effectively fight back those pressures on the issues of human rights and political reform," said Wu Guoguang, who was expelled from the Communist Party after publicly criticizing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and is now a professor of political science at the University of Victoria in Canada.

"Maybe with the United States, this is not so obvious, but in China's relations with Australia, with Canada, with other [less powerful] countries, that's a very obvious strategy," Wu said. "If you want to make money in China, OK, don't talk about the Dalai Lama, don't try to give the Falun Gong support, don't talk about human rights."

Chinese leaders have for decades sought to use their nation's leverage as the world's biggest potential marketplace, as well as its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, to fend off foreign pressure to allow more political and personal freedom.

Today, more than 16 years after the violent 1989 crackdown, that strategy has largely succeeded. Much of the world pays more attention to the fast-growing economy than to a repressive political system that remains remarkably unchanged.

In recent months, the American debate about China has been dominated by concerns about its increasing economic strength, from surging Chinese exports of textiles and other manufactured goods to the value of Chinese currency to the Chinese oil firm CNOOC Ltd.'s failed attempt to purchase the American company Unocal Corp.

Meanwhile, Chinese police rounded up activists in a domestic oil controversy, the government's seizure of thousands of privately drilled oil wells in northwest China. Some of the lead investors and the lead lawyer in the case, Zhu Jiuhu, have been held since May for attempting to file a lawsuit against the government on behalf of thousands of investors, most of them poor farmers.

Zhu was one of several lawyers jailed in the last year for their pursuit of rule of law. Other lawyers have been warned by authorities not to represent Zhu, and lawyers who take on politically sensitive cases are routinely harassed or monitored by State Security. One such attorney, Guo Guoting of Shanghai, had his law license suspended earlier this year and has since fled the country under fear of arrest, seeking asylum in Canada.

One of Guo's clients was Shi Tao, one of several journalists jailed in the last year in connection with "state secrets," a very broadly defined category that enables authorities to arrest troublemakers.

Shi had e-mailed overseas Web sites an abstract of an official Chinese document warning journalists about reporting on politically sensitive issues such as the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, according to the group Reporters Without Borders. The case gained more international attention last week when it emerged that Yahoo Inc.'s Hong Kong holding company provided authorities with user information that may have helped identify Shi as the e-mailer.

In addition to Shi, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan has been held on allegations of disclosing state secrets since last September, shortly after the Times reported that Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin, had offered to resign his last significant post as head of the military.

In April, the chief China correspondent for the Straits Times newspaper of Singapore, Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong, was detained while traveling to the mainland and has since been arrested on charges of spying for Taiwan.

Also last spring, a prominent sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Lu Jianhua, and another official of the academy were detained in apparent connection with Ching. Ching's wife wrote an open letter in June to Hu Jintao saying that Lu had supplied Ching with internal party speeches, including Hu's, as part of what she called a cooperative relationship aimed at furthering China's national interests.

These high-profile arrests have come at a time when Chinese journalists, academics and lawyers are facing more pressure to toe the party line. Publications with a history of daring reporting have been producing fewer exposes, a development that troubles Human Rights in China's Becquelin.

"When you know that journalists are really the agents of reform in China, at least the sort of liberal-minded ones, and you see this crackdown, then you understand glaciation is coming," Becquelin said. "The press is really the barometer of the climate, of the political climate. It's always the first thing to go."

China does not seem to have had to pay a price in international affairs for its crackdown at home. Other issues have taken the spotlight, notably the North Korean nuclear program that is the subject of six-nation talks in Beijing.

China has also deftly timed the releases of high-profile political prisoners for reprieves from criticism on human rights from the U.S., Europe and the U.N., including the release in March of Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur businesswoman from northwest China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. She had been imprisoned for more than five years, in part, for trying to mail out of the country some Chinese newspapers, which authorities deemed state secrets.

Kadeer's release won headlines, but since then, police have repeatedly harassed and intimidated her family and associates in Xinjiang, where the government has used the global war on terror to tighten its grip on Muslims in the region, activists said.

Hu's apparent hard-line approach is a disappointment to those in China and overseas who had hoped that he would launch reforms when he assumed leadership, though his background as a cautious party loyalist never suggested that he would.

After his beginnings in the Communist Youth League, Hu rose through the ranks without attaching himself to the reformist wing of the party in the 1980s, and perhaps distinguished himself most with a crackdown on unrest in Tibet in 1989. He then studiously avoided any hint of controversy during a long apprenticeship in the Politburo after being anointed for succession more than a decade ago by the late Deng Xiaoping.

Hu is a creature of a party that has avoided risk since Tiananmen and especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, an event that for party leaders confirmed the necessity of taking a hard line.

After Hu took power, he and Premier Wen Jiabao presented themselves as populists who cared about the common people.

Some China watchers had felt that Hu's response to the 2003 SARS crisis - ending the government's cover-up of the virus' spread and allowing widespread media coverage - might be an indication of reformist instincts. Hu may have inspired more hope with the addition of human rights and property rights clauses to the national constitution early last year.

But many of Hu's seemingly progressive steps can also be viewed as "classic benevolent authoritarian stuff," said M. Scot Tanner, a senior political scientist and China expert at Rand Corp. There is no evidence Hu will introduce real reforms, Tanner said, which should show the U.S. that simply engaging with China economically will not produce change.

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