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Amid human rights protests, a look at China's record

Freedoms have improved tremendously in the past 25 years, but Chinese people today face plenty of red lines.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 10, 2008

Detained: Human rights activist Gao Zhisheng has been convicted of subversion. Hundreds are arrested on the same charge every year.

Ng Han Guan/AP/FILE

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The international torch relay for the Beijing Olympic Games has been besieged in almost every city it has visited so far by protesters against repression in Tibet and human rights violations in China. But what is the human rights picture really like in China, and how has it changed over the past quarter of a century?

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As with so much else in China, the situation is mixed, sometimes confused, and often hard to make out with precision. Some observers like to point to the progress China has made toward international norms; others prefer to stress how far it still is from reaching them.

The imminence of the Games, and the Chinese government's effort to use them as a showcase for its achievements, have polarized the debate. Here, the Monitor tries to cut through the rhetoric with an outline explanation of the key issues.

What kind of freedoms do Chinese people enjoy in their personal lives?

"Nothing we do today was possible 25 years ago. Compared with then, the human rights situation in China has improved like never before."

And that enthusiastic assessment comes from a man who was fired from his job in 2006 as editor of a Communist youth newspaper for publishing an article thatcontradicted the party line, Li Datong.

But the baseline, he points out, was pretty low. "In 1983, I would probably have been arrested."

Twenty-five years ago, Chinese citizens were not free to choose their jobs: The authorities assigned them work for life. Farmers were forbidden to live anywhere but the village where they were born. Nobody was allowed to travel abroad, except on government-authorized business. Nobody could dream of owning a car, let alone a house. Food was rationed. Nobody was allowed to set up a business. Western movies and books were banned.

Today, all that has changed. And as the state has relaxed its control over the minutiae of daily life, citizens have also felt freer to express themselves to each other. Among friends and neighbors, Chinese say what they think about everything, from their political leaders to rising prices to their country's medal chances at the Beijing Olympics.

So where's the problem?

The boulevard of freedoms that Chinese people enjoy may have widened, but it is still lined with precipices. You may be able to criticize the ruling Communist Party over dinner with friends, but airing such views in public – for example on the Internet – can earn you years of prison time.

You would not get a chance to run that risk anywhere else: all newspapers and TV and radio stations are owned by the government and edited by men and women who know where the red lines are drawn. Each time a new issue comes up, the Communist Party propaganda department sends them a directive telling them the line to take.

Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution. But it is upheld only for those who do not challenge Communist Party rule. Communist Party security agents decide what constitutes a challenge.

Certainly you cannot call for free elections or a multiparty state, or criticize party leaders by name. Nor can you advocate independence for Tibet, or Taiwan's right to self-rule. Nor can you try to set up an independent trade union.

On other issues, "it's like crossing the stream by feeling where the rocks are," says John Kamm, a human rights advocate who heads the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation.

Citizens who have slipped off the rocks, and ended up in jail, include land rights activists, practitioners of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, tenants protesting eviction from their homes by developers, defense lawyers, and Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uighurs demanding more respect for their cultures and religions, members of Christian churches not authorized by the state, and anticorruption campaigners, among others.

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