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.

Ng Han Guan/AP/FILE
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
Detained: Human rights activist Hu Jia has been convicted of subversion. Hundreds are arrested on the same charge every year.
SOURCE: Dui Hua Foundation, based on the China Law Yearbook/Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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?

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.

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.

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.

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