Inconsistency in China

13/01/1999
Press release

By declaring that it “firmly intended to promote and
protect human rights”, China finally agreed on
October 5th 1998 to sign one of the main UN
conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights.

Having already signed the International Covenant on
Economical, Social and Cultural Rights, China must
now ratify both tools and apply them in accordance
with its solemn commitment to the UN.
Many observers and western diplomats will be pleased
by this progress on the road to the respect of
international rights and law but many more will be
sceptical and remind us of the fact that although in
1988, China signed the Convention Against Torture,
according to the accounts given by many Chinese
recently freed from Laogai (reforming work camps), or
from Laojiao (rehabilitation work camps), torture is still
common practice in Chinese detention centers. It is true that
it is sometimes practiced by the
prisoners themselves so that if
someone is hurt or battered,
wardens are then able to blame
it on a fight amongst prisoners.

In other words, should we be
delighted or worried to see China
blithely signing international
agreements meant to bring the country in tune with
20th century norms? We should, of course, be
delighted since each new step which brings this vast
country closer to modern democratic countries is a
step in the right direction. Each agreement signed may
equally become a weapon in the hands of Chinese
citizens and human rights activists abroad to put
irrefutable arguments to Chinese leaders when they do
not conform to their own commitments.
However, there is equal ground for concern.
Appearances are often deceiving and the situation of
the current Chinese dissidents is a good example.

The more China gives the impression of liberalization,
the more restless its dissidents become and the less
attention is given by foreign observers. This apparent
contradiction is due to a wrong interpretation of the
actual situation in the country. Since the first true
dissident actions, the “Hundred Flowers” movement in
1957, the same scenario has been played repeatedly:
The system relaxes, public opinion becomes louder
and expresses a number of criticisms and claims,
strong spirits get noticed, put on file and when
repression clamps down, they are arrested. This was
true in 1958, when some hundreds of thousands of
intellectuals were described as right-wing. This was
repeated throughout the cultural revolution, from 1966
to 1976, and again during the first Beijing Spring in
1979 and in 1986 during the demonstrations in
Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hefei and other
provincial towns. Finally, the memory of the repression
that occurred during the demonstrations in Tian’anmen
Square on June 4th, 1989, is still
vivid.

Since early 1998, Chinese
dissidents have regained the
strength lost over nine years.
fact that the most famous
dissidents, Wei Jingsheng, key
character of the Beijing Spring,
and Wang Dan, leader of the
1989 student demonstrations have been released and deported to the USA, has
called the attention of the media and given the
impression that the situation of human rights in China
has improved. The visit of the President of the United
States, Bill Clinton, in June 1998 and the public
dialogue in which he engaged with President Jiang
Zemin on the sensitive subjects of freedom and
democracy, as well as the increase in published
criticisms of the system, have reinforced the
impression of liberalism and opening up. The visit, in
September, of the United Nations human rights high
commissioner, Mary Robinson, brought the final touch
to a moving picture of China reconciled with the West
on subjects up to now considered “home politics”.

The manner in which the government repressed the
freedom of speech, or association, and of religion,
among others.

So, everything is going well? Not so sure! During the
three days following the end of Mary Robinson’s visit
in China and Tibet, we learned that a vast series of
arrests was in process and that seven dissidents were
already arrested.

Their crime? Having
contacted the
authorities of various
provinces to ask that
independent
democratic parties be
registered. Such
approach is
authorized by the
Chinese constitution,
which moreover
recognizes several
democratic parties,
the same since 1949,
with members chosen
and controlled by the
Communist party...
puppets, in other
words. When there is
an attempt by real
citizens to create a
truly active
democratic parties,
the authorities quickly
become repressive.

Trade Union groups do not even enjoy this hypocritical
tolerance. Whilst economic reforms are current affairs,
state owned firms are being privatized and every year
since 1997, the government has officially
acknowledged approximately eleven million
unemployed, any attempt by independent organizations
is crushed immediately. More than any other form of
protest, the Chinese government fears the organization
of opposition movements within the working class.
How long will it be able to prevent them from
expressing themselves if the government refuses to
engage in dialogue with a society beaten by economic crisis and rapid change? Social explosion may be
avoided if the prime minister Zhu Ronghji wins his bet
on privatization. If not, without any structured
opposition, the worst is to be feared.

This is why the fact that China agrees to signing
international conventions is suspicious. Why would it
do so if it didn’t feel cornered? Together, pressures
from international
opinion and social
tensions within the
country are forcing
China to pretend to
respect human
rights. If satisfied
with having obtained
the signatures,
international opinion
will turn its
attention away from
the reality within the
country, and
Chinese leaders will
be left to exercise
as they wish, their
famous “
proletarian
dictatorship” which
remains the pillar of
its government and
ideology. Both,
arrests and trials
are on the increase
since last October and the sentences have ceased to
outrage the media. How many know the name of the
democratic militant from Shandong, Chen Zengxiang
recently condemned to seven years imprisonment for
disclosing state secrets. Chen had simply made a list
of militants jailed for political reasons in his region. It
is true that now that China has agreed to respect
freedom of speech, thought and public gathering, the
spreading of such information does indeed amount to
disclosing a very sinister “state secret”.

Marie Holzman

Journalist

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