China's abuse of human rights
is getting worse
by Joshua Schenker
In These Times magazine,
On a street in the middle of Shanghai,
I wandered into a towering '20s edifice to admire its interior.
Inside was a scene that would shock those who had been here just
five years ago. The ground floor of the building had been converted
into a stock brokerage, and hundreds of ordinary Chinese were
furiously wagering on the local bourse.
But this scene, similar to everyday life
in financial capitals like New York or Tokyo, is hardly reflective
of the freedoms enjoyed by individuals in China. In recent years,
multinational businesses have flocked to China's urban areas,
the country has entered the World Trade Organization, and Beijing
has hired foreign PR specialists to repackage the country's image
in advance of the 2008 Olympics. But alongside economic liberalization,
human rights have actually deteriorated. Religious revivals, labor
protests and Internet chat rooms-indeed, anything the government
perceives as a threat to authority-all have triggered a wave of
often brutal crackdowns.
On the surface, China does seem to be
a rapidly changing place, especially to foreigners who spend their
time in prospering eastern cities like Shanghai. Home to less
than one-fifth of China's population, these cities contain the
vast majority of the country's Starbucks, mobile-phone kiosks
and stock exchanges. They do seem full of young Chinese pushing
against social boundaries. "There is definitely a public
image of eastern China that could be very appealing, especially
to foreign business-people who don't dig deeper," says Mike
Jendryzcek of Human Rights Watch in Washington.
Thirteen years after the Tiananmen Square
uprising, the world's attention has shifted away from abuses in
China. Many former dissidents have returned, unwilling to speak
of their past; one of 1989's leading protesters, Ya-Qin Zhang,
now heads up Microsoft's research center in China. Over the past
decade, China's secret police have broken up the networks of dissenters
who provided information to the West, and today the best source
of intelligence on human rights in China is one man, Frank Lu
Siqing, who runs a monitoring organization out of his tiny Hong
The current group of Chinese leaders,
human rights experts say, is less tolerant than the previous generation
headed by Deng Xiaoping and, for a time, Zhao Ziyang, a reformer
placed under house arrest after the 1989 Tiananmen massacres.
(Zhao remains incarcerated for fear he might emerge as a rallying
point for reformers.) According to He Qinglian, a prominent Chinese
journalist, this current generation of leaders, led by President
Jiang Zemin, cut their political teeth m 1989, when they were
surprised by how quickly protests coalesced into a nationwide
anti-government movement. As a result, Jiang and his cohorts have
developed an almost irrational fear of groups that aspire to create
a national membership. Not surprisingly, Jiang has allowed the
People's Liberation Army, China's ultimate weapon against protests,
to exert more influence over domestic affairs. Jiang also has
increased the size of the paramilitary People's Armed Police.
In fact, some experts doubt whether the
next generation of Communist Party leaders will come to the fore.
As Jiang prepares to visit the United States in October, speculation
is running high in Beijing that the 76 year-old president is not
yet willing to give up his titles as leader of the party and the
army. Jiang allegedly has been positioning his supporters in the
party to elect him for another term as army chief, even as probable
successor Hu Jintao is being touted as Jiang's heir.
The government's all-out war on Falun
Gong, a spiritual sect dedicated to meditation and breathing exercises,
has been well publicized. But rarely mentioned is the fact that
Beijing's security services have routinely tortured and murdered
Falun Gong adherents. The Chinese authorities reportedly have
locked hundreds of Falun Gong supporters in psychiatric hospitals
and force-fed them drugs; imprisoned thousands more in the world's
largest system of labor camps; and quietly executed several Falun
Details of Chinese executions are shocking:
According to Wang Guoqi, a pathologist who formerly worked for
a Chinese army hospital, doctors frequently harvest the organs
of executed prisoners, none of whom consented to organ donation.
He tells of a doctor removing a kidney from a still-breathing
prisoner who had survived the initial gunshots. After the organ
was removed, the condemned man was left to die.
China has taken the battle against the
Falun Gong outside its borders. Beijing convinced Cambodia to
deport two Falun Gong practitioners who had fled to Phnom Penh
and has used its consulates in America to harass Falun Gong adherents.
One Falun Gong follower in Washington claims that Chinese agents
have recorded his private conversations and then left the recordings
on his answering machine to intimidate him. Beijing also may have
influenced the stance of Hong Kong's government and media toward
Falun Gong. In April, the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's
leading English-language newspaper, abruptly dismissed its Beijing
bureau chief, Jasper Becker, who had written several probing stories
about Falun Gong. Then in August, a Hong Kong court found followers
of Falun Gong, which is not outlawed in the territory, guilty
of "causing a public obstruction" by protesting outside
the Chinese government's main office there.
Beijing also has shrewdly capitalized
on post-9/11 fears of Islamic terrorism to launch a "strike
hard" campaign against Muslim "splittists"-groups
of ethnic Uighurs living in the western Xinjiang province, the
site of diffuse but violent separatist movements in the past.
Yet according to Dru Gladney, an expert on Chinese Muslims at
the University of Hawaii, most Uighurs have become less enamored
with separation as they have watched chaos envelop their independent,
post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors. Even Uighurs advocating increased
autonomy primarily desire more freedom to study and utilize the
Uighur language and to halt the flooding of the province with
ethnic Han Chinese. (There were roughly 300,000 Han in Xinjiang
in 1949; today there are more than 6.4 million.)
Still, the "strike hard" campaign
has been exceptionally broad, perhaps reflecting Beijing's fear
that some Uighur activists might link up with Tlbetans and other
disgruntled ethnic minorities. Vocally linking its crackdown to
the international war on terror (Beijing claims al-Qaeda terrorists
are hiding in Xinjiang), the Chinese authorities have deployed
40,000 new troops to the province, burned Uighur-language books
and held "political education" sessions for 8,000 imams.
These campaigns are eerily reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution's
brutal "education" brainwashing sessions. Meanwhile,
the security forces have detained thousands of Uighurs and executed
several alleged separatists. As Craig Smith of the New York Times
noted after watching one man be sentenced to death, Xinjiang is
"the only place in the country where people are regularly
put to death for political offenses."
Despite the vicious campaigns against
Falun Gong and Uighur Muslims, Beijing probably most fears rural
Christian evangelical groups, since evangelical uprisings helped
topple several pre-Communist governments. "The number of
Christians in China is growing strongly, and the government knows
this and is worried," says Joseph Kung, president of the
Cardinal Kung Foundation, a nonprofit based in Connecticut that
promotes the Catholic Church in China.
Over the past three years, public security
officials have targeted prominent sects such as Eastern Lightning
and the Church of God, as well as underground Catholics loyal
to the Vatican. (Officially atheist Beijing sponsors a state Catholic
Church that does not recognize the pope.) Beijing increasingly
has pitted mainstream Christians against charismatic evangelical
groups, allowing some Protestant groups to worship quietly if
they cooperate with security forces in rooting out other sects.
What's more, a series of the government's own documents issued
between 1999 and 2001 (and smuggled out of the country) reveal
systematic efforts to arrest and kill members of evangelical churches.
(In the documents, one of the subversive "crimes" pinned
on evangelicals is "praying for world peace.") Indeed,
adherents of underground sects have told human rights groups of
security forces beating them with bars and electrically shocking
Another main target of government repression
has been the nascent peasants' rights and labor organizations.
According to He Qinglian, at least 150 million peasants have lost
their jobs over the past decade. Upon joining the WTO last winter,
Beijing pledged to slash subsidies for state enterprises, reforms
that probably will put at least 50 million more people out of
work. Already, state workers are rarely paid, since many state-owned
companies have no revenues and have been stripped of assets by
their directors. In cities throughout northeast China's "rust
belt," home of many formerly state-subsidized companies,
thousands of unemployed workers wander the streets, sleeping on
benches, selling their bodies for sex, and begging for scraps
of food. China labor experts estimate that the rust belt unemployment
rate tops 20 percent, and many laid-off workers will never find
another job, since their skills are ill-suited for an open economy.
Chinese farmers, who still comprise more
than 50 percent of the population, also are in a precarious position.
Most Chinese farms are less than two acres in size and will be
unable to compete with the foreign agribusiness giants now entering
China. The per capita income of rural residents is less than $300,
compared to per capita incomes of over $4,000 in Shanghai. At
the same time, farmers actually pay higher taxes than urban Chinese,
since they cough up both the national fees and local "special
taxes" collected by rural officials. Making matters worse,
developers frequently confiscate farmers' land to build homes
for China's sprawling cities, often paying no compensation for
the property, since most peasants do not technically own their
land. Even China's state news agency recently conceded that 12
million rural peasants will lose the* land to urbanization over
the next decade, a figure probably too low by half.
Many farmers and laborers have begun to
express anger at their bleak situation. The number of peasant
and labor protests is rising sharply, and is likely some 3 million
people. During the course of these protests, 78 police and government
workers were killed. In 2000, the most recent year for which statistics
are available, labor disputes rose by 12 percent, as workers in
several rust belt cities besieged their factories and won some
unemployment benefits, encouraging other laid-off workers to protest.
In some cases, local governments and state
enterprises have tolerated limited protests or have bought off
farmers and laborers with minimal unemployment benefits. But if
the protests continue over the course of several days, or threaten
to spread to other areas, officials show no mercy. State security
agents arrested whistleblowers in the rust belt province of Liaoning,
who exposed corruption at state enterprises, as well as Chinese
journalists who reported on peasant protests. Protest leaders
have been arrested and brutally tortured, their cases widely publicized
as a message to other workers.
Foreign companies have been complicit
in China's human rights crackdown. Though the international media
have celebrated the Internet as a potential liberalizing force,
Beijing recently rolled back Internet freedoms. Many Internet
cafes have been shuttered, chat rooms are closely watched by a
force of 40,000 Internet security agents, and Beijing is constructing
a system to monitor all Internet users. China also has used Internet
firewalls to block hundreds of foreign Web sites such as the BBC
and Falun Gong; the New York Times won a reprieve only when its
editor appealed personally to Jiang Zemin. Chinese who helped
others get around the firewalls have been jailed.
In July, Yahoo! signed a voluntary self
censorship pledge written by Beijing; portals that sign the pledge
promise not to post any information the Chinese government considers
a threat to "state security" or "social stability."
According to Human Rights Watch, a recent internal memo at America
Online recommended that staff abide by potential Chinese government
demands for information on political dissidents. Meanwhile, Rupert
Murdoch's son James, a top executive at the global media conglomerate
News Corp., has publicly echoed Beijing's condemnation of the
Falun Gong, calling the group an "apocalyptic cult."
Beijing has allowed local and foreign
reporters some freedom to report on problems in the country's
business sector. Beijing tolerates more vibrant business publications,
because the government realizes an open financial press helps
convince investors that China is becoming more transparent. Still,
aggressive reporting, even in the business and financial sectors,
can be punished if it implicates high-ranking officials. Over
the past year, many Chinese companies have used the country's
compliant judiciary, which convicts roughly 99 percent of defendants,
to file-and win-defamation suits against business reporters.
China today is a paradox. No longer the
Maoist totalitarian state, it has yet to become the liberal society
so many foreign observers predicted. It has opened its economy
rapidly, and urban Chinese have adopted many of the practices
of industrialized economies with remarkable speed. Young urbanites
today can dress as they like, watch a range of foreign television
programs, even fly to a remote province to enjoy their own "Chinese
Woodstock" rock festivals. But those who praise Beijing for
reshaping its economy and allowing some of its citizens to improve
their standards of living have ignored one unseemly fact: China
is becoming more repressive, more suffocating of civil society-and
potentially more combustible.
Even some state-sponsored Chinese academics
have begun to predict that if inequality between urban dwellers,
laid-off laborers and peasants continues to rise, and if the government
does little to accommodate civil society and tolerate dissent,
the People's Republic could face a social explosion or another
national protest movement similar to the one in 1989. "There
are hundreds of little brush fires burning," warns David
Zweig, an expert on rural China at Hong Kong University of Science
and Technology. "Will they become a blaze?"
Human Rights watch