Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in London on 8 November on a visit that will take him to Germany, Spain, and South Korea. Later this month, he will host U.S. President George W. Bush in Beijing. The Chinese leadership orchestrates such occasions to display the positive image it has carefully cultivated in recent years.
Nonetheless, issues that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would rather forget continue to dog it and remind the world that China's political system remains firmly rooted in the past. Clamping Down On The Web
Already on his first day in London, Hu was greeted by protesters opposed to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The previous day, representatives of a group of social investment funds meeting in San Francisco drew attention to another issue that Beijing would prefer not to see in the media, namely the role of Western Internet companies in allegedly helping the CCP suppress free speech and political activism at home.
The investor group and Reporters Without Borders charged that firms including Yahoo, Cisco, Microsoft, and Google faced risks in "collaborating to suppress freedom of opinion and expression." The critics called attention to a case in which Yahoo reportedly provided information about one Chinese journalist's e-mails that enabled the authorities to send him to jail (see "China: Controlling The Internet"
In response, a Yahoo spokeswoman stressed that foreign companies are obliged to obey the laws of the countries where they operate, saying that Yahoo "understands that there are unique and inherent challenges to doing business in China." The funds nonetheless stuck to their position that "this is essentially a lockdown on freedom of expression." No Religion Is Good Religion
Another issue that has again surfaced is China's attitude toward freedom of religion. The CCP is mistrustful of organized religious or mediation groups, not only on ideological grounds but also for political reasons. It suspects Christian groups in particular of being stalking horses of Western governments or political organizations, and fears homegrown spiritual or millenarian movements as real or potential threats to its authority.
In opposing the peaceful mediation group Falun Gong, for example, the regime seeks to smash what it regards as a potential source of organized opposition, noting that millenarian groups have emerged at various times in Chinese history and gone on to challenge the authorities (see "China: Frustrated Citizens Take To The Streets"
The latest incident involves not Falun Gong but a Protestant minister, his wife, and her brother, whom a court in Beijing sentenced on 8 November to up to three years in prison for illegally printing Bibles and other Christian publications. Such books and publications cannot be printed or sold freely in China.
The authorities claimed recently that the case has nothing to do with religious freedom but involves illegal, unlicensed sales. It remains to be seen whether foreign observers, including Hu's American guests later in November, will acknowledge or appreciate the distinction. More Mining Disasters
Another phenomenon that continues to darken China's image abroad is the frequent occurrence of large, fatal mining accidents in a country with a huge appetite for energy supplies and a very dubious record on mining safety (see "China: Dying In The Mines"
Between 6 and 8 November, the media reported three separate accidents that killed at least 57 people. Following a series of coal-mining disasters earlier in 2005, the State Administration of Work Safety ordered over 12,000 mines closed and has spoken of shutting down an additional 4,000.
That body has, moreover, more recently called for managers to accompany miners underground on every shift as a way of improving safety. Reports of accidents are nonetheless likely to continue as long as coal mining remains lucrative and respect for miners' rights and safety scant. Still Not "Normal"
The absence of the rule of law or an effective system of checks and balances is yet another aspect of CCP rule that is rooted in Chinese history and offers evidence that Beijing has a long way to go before it can be regarded in democratic societies abroad as something like a "normal country."
On 8 November, leading human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng told Reuters that he will fight the authorities' attempt to close his firm by suing the Beijing Bureau of Justice. That government body notified him recently that his office's license has been suspended for one year, which will prevent his meeting with arrested clients or appearing in court.
Gao claims that the authorities have dodged his attempts in recent months to register his 13-member firm at a new address and used his "failure" to reregister as an excuse to restrict his activities. He is one of a small but hardy group of attorneys that seeks to use the limited legal possibilities offered by the system to defend his clients and their basic rights.