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China Home Page. Download the State Department's profile on China.

Amnesty International USA: China spotlights the cause of Chinese dissidents.

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Human Rights in China monitors the implementation of international human-rights standards.

Trade and Human Rights in China. James A. Dorn of the Cato Institute thinks the way to foster freedom in China is to promote free trade, not to threaten it with sanctions.

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World Report 12/14/98

So much for fair play
China's dissidents stuck to the law–and got stuck in jail


BEIJING–Last summer, Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and other Chinese dissidents came up with a novel way to build a viable opposition to the Communist regime: Play by the Communists' own rules. Instead of meeting underground, they went above board and tried to register the country's first legal opposition party.

Last week, the regime finally offered its definitive answer to the dissidents' move. Xu and Qin were hauled from their homes by police. Chinese officials said the two men are suspected of "endangering state security." That is a typically vague allegation, but in China it means that they probably face serious prison time, maybe even life sentences. And it is another sign of how resolute and merciless the Communists, who have held power for nearly half a century, remain in quashing any political challenge.

Initially, officials had signaled that they might tolerate this new breed of political activist. For the past six months, Xu and Qin had led a nationwide network of about 200 pro-democracy agitators in testing the limits of the Communist Party. Their attempt to gain legal recognition for a non-Communist political group was not merely bold but breathtaking–and apparently a first in the sad annals of China's dissident movement. That they got as far as they did is remarkable.

Xu and company were developing a style of protest that can be likened to the U.S. government's policy of "constructive engagement" with the Chinese government. Virtually all dissidents of the past, who believed that cooperation with the ruling party was a sellout, now either keep silent or are in exile. The new group sought to avoid giving the Communists a legal pretext for clamping down. In all their activities, including writing a letter calling for the release of detained colleagues, they adhered to Chinese law and operated openly. The new party's platform was carefully worded not to challenge the leading role of the Communist Party, which is enshrined in China's Constitution. "We are trying to give birth to a mature, steady, responsible, constructive, legal opposition to the party," Xu told U.S. News in August.

The dissidents had reason to think that tolerance for dissent might be growing. In the past, Beijing had denounced international campaigns for human rights as interference in its internal affairs. But this year, the government agreed to a dialogue with European countries on the issue, and it accepted a visit by the United Nations' top human rights official. The regime also allowed President Clinton to tout the principle of universal human rights on live television during his June summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. And in October, China formally signed the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is supposed to guarantee freedom of assembly, elections, and speech. "This is similar to what happened after the Helsinki Accords in the '70s," says Roderick MacFarquhar, professor of government at Harvard University. "While not many Westerners had much hope that the human rights section of the accord would be observed in the communist world, there were people in Eastern Europe and Russia emboldened to start agitating."

Good timing. The activists announced the formation of their Chinese Democratic Party (CDP) on June 25, just as Clinton began his nine-day China tour–which was no coincidence, of course. The government did not intervene right away. But a week after Clinton left China, police rounded up 10 CDP campaigners, including one of the co-founders, Wang Youcai.

Still, the government continued to send out mixed signals. All of those arrested, except Wang, were released within a few days. One CDP member managed to run for election as a village mayor in Zhejiang province–though when he won, the results were annulled. Until last week, police had periodically harassed the democracy activists but had not truly cracked down on the network, which spread to more than 10 cities across the country.

The party may have been vacillating, uncertain how to deal with this new challenge. But it apparently made up its mind last month. Li Peng, the Communist Party's No. 2 official, issued a dire warning in a November 23 interview with the German newspaper Handelsblatt. Any political organization that "is designed to go for a multiparty system and tries to negate the leadership of the Communist Party," Li said, "will not be allowed to exist." A week later came the crackdown on Xu, Qin, and three other CDP campaigners, two of whom have since been released.

China watchers are still not certain what prompted the crackdown now. Some see the hand of archconservatives like Li, who may have prevailed over moderates in the party's internal debates. Others think the dissidents pushed their luck a little too far. "In October, Xu Wenli began to call our organization a real party, rather than a preparatory committee," says Wang Xizhe, one of the directors of the U.S.-based Free China Movement Network. "At that point, the government found us to be a real threat."

The regime may also be concerned about the economy. China's legions of unemployed are growing as state enterprises close. Along with disaffected peasants, they could become a potent political force. So the party, which has staked its legitimacy on previously rapid (but now slowing) economic growth, may have decided to impose discipline before it is too late. "They're fearful of turmoil, of the forces of unemployed workers and peasants," says Liu Binyan, a dissident journalist who left China in 1988. Adds Harry Wu, who was arrested for 66 days when he went back to China in 1995 to expose abuses in prison camps: "If they allow one party to form, another hundred will spring up."

The repression leads some experts to conclude that the regime's earlier moves on human rights were window dressing. "They've gotten much more clever the last couple of years in terms of public relations," says Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China. "But they're as tough as ever." Lord worries that discontent over official corruption and unemployment are mounting while Chinese have "no political safety valve" to vent their frustration with the Communist Party. Their only options seem to be underground dissident activity or street protests that risk violence.

So far, the CDP is sticking with its tactics. Gao Hongmin, vice chairman of the group's Beijing contingent, said the organization plans to hire a lawyer to mount an active defense for Xu and Qin in court–despite the fact that state security trials are usually held in secret and often are farcical. "We know the effort won't be successful," admits Gao. "But we have to show the people of China and the rest of the world that we operate by the law–and so should the government."

With Thomas Omestad