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China: Long Prison Sentences A Signal To Other Dissidents

  • Breffni O'Rourke



Prague, 22 December 1998 (RFE/RL) - There has been sharp world reaction to the long sentences handed out by courts in China to three political dissidents.

Expressions of concern at yesterday's events have come from the United States, France, Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

U.S. State Department spokesman James Foley said Washington "deeply deplores the sentencing of prominent Chinese human-rights activists Xu Wenli, Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin to 13 years, 11 years and 13 years, respectively, allegedly for subversion and threatening state security."

"We call upon the Chinese government to release all three. These three men appear to have been involved in nothing more than efforts to form a new political party, which is after all, a form of peaceful political expression. We are deeply disturbed by the long sentences imposed and the lack of due process," said Foley.

Foley went on to say that China's obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the obligations it will assume when it ratifies the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights -- which it has already signed -- require it to protect peaceful political expression and association.

The recent signing of the international covenant appeared part of a heartening trend in China during the year, as it was coupled with other moves indicating that the communist leadership was becoming more sensitive to outside criticism of its human right record. For instance, Beijing opened a dialogue with the European Union on rights issues, hosted a visit by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, and also one by a group of U.S. clergymen.

But the latest trials and harsh sentences show that Beijing's perspective on political dissent has not basically changed. The cases come at a time of considerable stress for the commmunist party in China, which is struggling to continue its economic reforms at a time when the economy is slowing as a result of the steep recessionary spiral in the rest of Asia.

Prominent Hong Kong-based journalist Willy Lam of the South China Morning Post, spoke with RFE/RL:

"The administration of President Jiang Zemin is afraid of labor unrest getting worse. There have been serious lay offs of workers from state factories and demonstrations of workers in many cities. There is fear on the part of the administration that if they were to relax on political control there is a possibility of massive social unrest. They also feel that the disssidents might join ranks with the laid-off workers. So the motive for the recent crackdown on dissidents is fear of social unrest as well as escalating economic problems," said Lam.

Lam, who is the Morning Post's China-desk editor, says that in the months since Beijing signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, there have been moves by dissidents in as many as 25 different provinces and cities to set up independent parties -- moves which Beijing has taken as a direct challenge. He says that in the crackdown on the fledgling Chinese Democratic Party, Beijing is sending a clear message to other dissidents to keep a low profile.

The three dissidents were convicted at separate trials of subversion and threatening state security. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzhao rejected any foreign criticism of the trials, saying they were an internal Chinese matter. He said the dissidents had been colluding with hostile overseas organisations, which he did not name, to subvert state power.

So are the latest international expressions of concern going to change things for dissenters in China? Richard Grant, an expert on China with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, sees the international criticism as a ritual, and doubts that anything will improve soon:

"There is a tacit understanding between China and the West that China will now accept criticism of its human rights record provided it is done with the diplomatic niceties, not just savaging China, but done in a way that allows China to save face, if you like," said Grant.

Further, China's economic importance on the world trade and investment scene makes a blunter approach on human rights unlikely at the moment. That's particularly so when the West is unwilling to complicate China's efforts to keep on track amid the economic chaos enveloping the rest of east Asia.
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