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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.

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Often they are convicted of endangering state security by inciting subversion or separatism: Mr. Kamm estimates that 4,000 prisoners are serving sentences for such crimes, of which outsiders know the names of only a few hundred.

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Has China's role as Olympic host this year encouraged the authorities to improve their human rights record?

No. If anything it seems to have made things worse, as the Chinese government tries to ensure a "harmonious" event.

The international human rights watchdog Amnesty International says in a recent report that "the crackdown on peaceful activists has intensified as a direct result of China's hosting of the Olympic Games. Several of the activists ... have been targeted because they have explicitly linked human rights and the Olympics, and have been among the most harshly treated."

The government's own statistics show that 742 people were arrested for "endangering state security" last year – more than double the 2005 figure, and the highest number since 1999.

What chance of a fair trial do you stand in China?

Companies with commercial cases before the courts say Chinese judges are becoming more professional and fairer – unless a state-owned business is involved, in which case it can generally expect favorable treatment.

In criminal and political cases, however, sentences are decided not by judges but by a court committee named by the Communist Party. Verdicts sometimes appear to have been reached before the formality of a court hearing: human rights activist Hu Jia's recent trial lasted only four hours, and his defense lawyer was allowed to speak for just 30 minutes.

At least he had a lawyer, which would have been unthinkable for a dissident 25 years ago. But lawyers taking such cases have to be brave: Advocate Gao Zhisheng was beaten up and abducted for a month last year – apparently by plainclothesmen – after writing an open letter to the US Congress denouncing "China's ongoing human rights disaster." Two other prominent rights lawyers, Teng Biao and Li Heping, have suffered similar fates in recent months: others have been jailed or put under house arrest.

The Chinese police are not always very particular about how they extract confessions: A United Nations report in 2006 found that torture in police stations was declining but still "widespread."

The police do not always bother to go to court with their suspects. The law allows them to sentence anyone to up to three years of "reeducation through labor," an administrative punishment against which there is no appeal. Local authorities often use it against land rights activists, petitioners drawing Beijing's attention to injustices, and other troublesome types.

How many people do Chinese courts condemn to death each year?

Nobody knows for sure because the government keeps the figure a secret, but foreign experts with good contacts in the Chinese judiciary estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 people were given the death penalty last year. Though 25 countries today practiced capital punishment in 2006, China was by far the heaviest user – it was responsible for two-thirds of the world's confirmed executions, according to Amnesty International.

The Chinese Supreme Court is making an effort to bring the numbers down, by insisting on reviewing all death penalty sentences imposed by lower courts. Ten years ago, as many as 15,000 people a year were being sentenced to death, according to foreign estimates.

Some Chinese academics and jurists have argued publicly in favor of abolishing the death penalty. The authorities have shown no sign of being ready to do that.