Days after a glowing visit to Beijing by an Olympic bid committee, Chinese officials yesterday lashed out with some of the most strongly worded language in recent years against the US administration, on the heels of the State Department's annual human rights report, published Monday.
The reaction comes amid an unusual confluence of attention to China's human rights record. The US report, which says China's record "worsened in the past year," happened to coincide with a first-of-its-kind visit from UN human rights chief Mary Robinson.
Differing opinions over human rights have been a longstanding and deep divide between Western governments and China. But an immediate concern of the Chinese in recent weeks is a suspicion that the US is trying to derail its much-sought bid to host the 2008 Olympics.
The annual US State Department report, issued Monday, focuses on the human rights records of many countries.
Chinese officials reacted to the report by calling on the US to end "unwarranted attention" to China's internal affairs, criticized a US "double standard," and asked the US government to "reverse its position and stop meddling and ... distorting the record of other countries."
The 32-page document, published by the Chinese State Information Agency, detailed a litany of US human rights problems including mistreatment of prisoners, police brutality, executions, and racial and sexual discrimination.
Many rights issues surfacing
The vociferous Chinese reaction caught some observers off guard, given the happy and smiling tone of recent days as Beijing put its best face forward for the international Olympics inspection team.
Yet speculation in Beijing is that the sheer number of issues raised has caused some tensions here to surface. Ms. Robinson is looking into the lack of due process in China's legal system and the use of labor camps to "reeducate" prisoners.
The White House on Monday confirmed it would sponsor a motion at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva condemning China's record. And last week, in comments that fell just short of an accusation, the White House said Chinese engineers were in Baghdad helping Saddam Hussein build a fiber-optic network.
Meanwhile, the Columbia Journal of Asian Law published a report last week by British scholar Robin Munro on China's alleged increasing use of psychiatric wards to punish dissidents. Chinese authorities deemed the report "totally groundless and unacceptable."
"There is a lot going on right now about rights, and the Chinese seem not in the mood to react mildly," commented one diplomat.
European and US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have asked China to review its heavy crackdown on the outlawed Falun Gong meditation movement, referred to here as an "evil cult." Some 5,000 members are reported to be in labor camps.
In a regular Foreign Ministry press briefing yesterday, Chinese spokeswoman Jiang Qi Yue suggested the US had "ulterior motives" in raising human rights. A reporter's question asking Ms. Jiang to clarify "ulterior motives" received this response: "The US government understands the comments made from this side; there is no need for me to elaborate."
China points out its successes
China regards its record on human rights, historically, to have steadily improved since the dark days of the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao in the 1960s and early 1970s.
China claims human rights successes more in the area of economic, social, and cultural rights than on the tougher political and civil covenant that deals with dissenters. Chinese officials point to progress in feeding, housing, and clothing its people.
Yesterday, a standing committee of China's National People's Congress (NPC) agreed it was time to ratify the economic covenant in the annual meeting next week. But Robinson expressed concern that the final ratification could dilute principles in the covenant dealing both with due process, and punishments deemed severe for "minor crimes" such as the use of labor camps.
Robinson called for a "serious review" of the justification for labor camps. "The concept and practice of reeducation through labor has a long history in China," Robinson stated in a meeting Monday. "But attitudes towards the administration of justice have changed both in the world at large and here in China too."
In an unusual sideshow to the Robinson visit and to counter recent international criticism of China's crackdown on the Falun Gong, a state-run press conference yesterday compared Falun Gong practitioners to "drug addicts" who need help. The Falun Gong exercise and meditation movement is led by Chinese-born Li Hongzhi, who is now in exile in the US. Adherents number as many as 2 million in China, Liu Jing, head of a new official anti-cult team, told reporters.
China outlawed the Falun Gong movement in the summer of 1999 after members mounted a massive protest outside the homes of Party leaders in Beijing. Last month, five Falun Gong members set themselves on fire in Tiananmen Square in protest of the crackdown. One died.
"The Falun Gong cult is the same as a spiritual drug," said Mr. Liu, adding that it does as much harm to those who practice it as drugs.
One Western diplomat said the new tact of comparing Falun Gong members to drug addicts was an attempt to "recategorize" people of different beliefs in an attempt to suppress them legally.
"The old language here to crack down was to accuse someone of 'counterrevolutionary' activity. Today, they are accused of 'endangering state security,' " - the charge often brought against Falun Gong members.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society