China under new assault on human rights

Activists, scholars call crackdown by Hu Jintao most severe in years

September 14, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

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.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions incorrectly characterized President Bush's comments about his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in New York. President Bush explicitly listed human rights as one of the subjects for discussion, and his aides gave Hu a list of human rights cases of special interest to the United States.
The Sun regrets the error.

"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.

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