Rights activists fearful in China

Ahead of Bush visit, lower expectations of U.S. influence

November 17, 2005|By GADY A. EPSTEIN | GADY A. EPSTEIN,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

BEIJING -- Publicly, Chinese leaders are awaiting the arrival of President Bush this weekend, fully prepared for him to press them on human rights and political freedom, themes he touched on yesterday in a major speech in Japan.

But some Chinese activists fear that top officials are even better prepared for Bush's departure, when they can quietly intensify efforts to restrict the lawyers, writers and scholars who have pushed hardest on human rights.

"After he leaves, they're certainly going to start a crackdown," said Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who has come under increasing pressure from authorities in recent weeks for his outspoken criticism of the government and work on behalf of sensitive causes, including underground churches and the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.

Gao and other activists and intellectuals have faced government intimidation during the past year for becoming involved in high-profile cases and a rising tide of protest against land seizures, pollution, corruption and official abuses across China.

Some fear in particular for the fate of blind peasant lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who exposed the brutality of local officials in enforcing the nation's one-child policy in his city of Linyi in eastern China, including forced abortions and sterilizations, and locking up relatives of women who failed to cooperate.

According to colleagues and friends, Chen has been under virtual house arrest for more than two months and has been beaten for trying to step out his front door to greet visitors, some of whom have also been beaten. He has not been charged with a crime, but might eventually be accused of revealing "state secrets" to foreigners, including international news media.

"Chen's view is that it's going to continue in this stalemate condition until President Bush comes here and leaves here," said Jerome Cohen of New York University, an expert on the Chinese justice system and friend of Chen's. "He feels that once Bush leaves, they will arrest him."

Such concerns underscore the declining expectations held by many of the United States' ability to influence China on human rights, despite Bush's public urging yesterday in Kyoto that China make changes. In his speech, Bush pointedly praised Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as part of its territory, while calling for more freedom in China.

"By embracing freedom at all levels, Taiwan has delivered prosperity to its people and created a free and democratic Chinese society," Bush said. "By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China's leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous and confident nation."

The speech was notable in particular for its timing, but as has been true in U.S.-China relations since President Richard M. Nixon, Bush's rhetoric is likely to be tempered on his visit to Beijing, which begins Saturday. Most analysts expect that President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will engage more directly on other issues that are important to the Bush administration, including avian flu, nuclear talks with North Korea, terrorism, trade and intellectual property rights.

The United States' influence over China on rights and democracy issues, always limited at best, appears to be on the wane, as China's economy surges and its leadership takes an increasingly confident place in world affairs, now so many years removed from the isolation that followed the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

China could send a message to that effect this week by not releasing a high-profile political prisoner in connection with Bush's visit. Nearly every previous presidential summit or visit to China by a secretary of state, including a visit this year by Condoleezza Rice, has been preceded by such a release.

"Before today, they would at least do something [before an important visit], and right now they are basically doing nothing. This is not good news," said Gao, one of the lawyers being pressured. "And this is enough to warn the outside world that economic development in China is not necessarily a positive thing for the development of democracy, freedom and the rule of law."

This pessimism highlights a long-standing, fundamental rift over how best to deal with China's almost unique brand of authoritarian repression and economic openness. For decades, a series of U.S. presidential administrations and advocates of engagement with China have argued that China's entry into the global economy and higher international profile would inevitably put pressure on the political system to open up.

Indeed, as China pushed for entry into the World Trade Organization and for the right to play host to the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese leaders routinely made at least symbolic or temporary concessions to deflect criticism on human rights and made broader assurances on developing the rule of law.

But now China has won those international prizes.

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