Civil liberties crackdown casts long shadow over Chinese leader's visit to Britain
Jonathan Watts / London Guardian | September 13 2006
The Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, flew to London yesterday amid increasing international criticism of his government's crackdown on lawyers, journalists, NGOs and civil liberties activists.
In the most repressive phase since Mr Wen and president Hu Jintao came to power in 2003, human rights groups said yesterday that at least 100 dissidents had been jailed, beaten or placed under house arrest in Beijing alone since the middle of last month.
Adding to the chill, China has announced new media restrictions and begun an investigation of charity organisations and environment campaigners who receive foreign funding.
The crackdown comes after a record number of protests last year against land seizures, pollution and corruption. The government is concerned that such demonstrations could lead to another "colour revolution" of the sort seen in several former Soviet republics last year.
The tightening of controls has undermined hopes that the Chinese leadership would pursue a policy of gradual political relaxation, and threatens to overshadow Mr Wen's visit.
In talks today with Tony Blair, the Chinese prime minister is expected to ask that the EU lift the ban on arms sales to Beijing, which was imposed after the 1989 massacre of civilians in and around Tiananmen Square. The EU has said it will not remove the embargo unless China improves its human rights situation.
Civil liberties campaigners say that since the middle of August the authorities have launched a coordinated campaign to clamp down on their activities. "A large number of rights activists, including human rights lawyers, journalists, writers and other activists have been detained or watched and harassed," the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders said in a statement yesterday.
"Some activists have disappeared. Several have been subjected to unfair trials or harsh sentences in local Chinese courts."
It cited several dozen examples, including the arrest of the outspoken human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, the beating of peasant campaigner Liu Zhengyou in Zigong city in Sichuan province and the repeated detention of Aids activist Hu Jia.
The Chinese government has crammed together a series of controversial trials, arrests and policies, presumably in the hope of getting critical overseas coverage out of the way in time for the Olympics in 2008 and an important Communist party congress next year.
Last month, the three court cases with the highest international profile of the past two years were settled in little more than a week. A blind activist, Chen Guangcheng, was sentenced to four years in prison, a New York Times assistant, Zhao Yan, to three years, and a Straits Times correspondent, Ching Cheong, five years.
This summer, the government announced plans to impose fines on media organisations that report on disasters and protests without permission. On Sunday, the Xinhua news agency proclaimed new regulations that oblige foreign media to seek its approval to distribute news, pictures and graphics within China. The business licences of foreign companies are threatened if they report news that endangers national security, sabotages national unification or promotes cults.
The EU said it would complain about the regulations at human rights talks with China in October. "Any kind of restrictions on the freedom of the press, increasing the intervention of the state, is a very negative development," said the European commission president, José Manuel Barroso.
Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, said the new rules breached Beijing's "commitment to allow journalists to freely cover the Olympic Games in 2008". The curbs "sound a wake-up call to the international community that a closed, state-controlled Olympics is on the horizon", she added.
Sentences were handed down last month in the three most internationally prominent court cases of the past two years. Activist Chen Guangcheng, who is blind, was jailed for four years for inciting a crowd to disrupt traffic; Zhao Yan, a researcher for the New York Times, was jailed for three years for fraud and Straits Times correspondent Ching Cheong received five years for spying. The trials were closed.
In July, China - already the world's biggest censor - announced plans for more media control, with a new law imposing financial penalties on news organisations that report on emergencies without permission. On Sunday, Xinhua news agency proclaimed new regulations obliging the foreign media to seek its approval to distribute news, pictures and graphics within China. Reports deemed to endanger national security, sabotage national unification or promote cults are punishable by warnings and, ultimately, the removal of business licences. At least three foreign journalists were detained in August.
Arrest and detention
On August 15, the outspoken lawyer Gao Zhisheng, a civil rights figurehead, was arrested. No charge was made public and he has not been heard from since.
According to the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, nearly 100 people have been detained or placed under house arrest since mid-August. They include the writer Liu Xiaobo, lawyer Teng Biao, activist Hou Wenzhuo and Aids campaigner Hu Jia.
Since last year, Chinese agents have been investigating NGOs (non-governmental organisations) particularly those that are partly funded by foreign governments. There is a virtual freeze on registration of groups and staff have been interrogated.
Human Rights Defenders reports that activist Guo Feixiong was beaten up by police officers on a train on August 9. It said that 13 days later police stood by as a peasant campaigner, Liu Zhengyou, was assaulted by thugs.
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