Saturday, February 28, 2009

China's war of words over human rights


In the week following Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first visit to China a war of words has brewed over human rights. It is a subject that is never far away whenever China is mentioned. But this year is particularly poignant as the 20th anniversary to the pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square approaches.

Mothers who lost their children in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 have called for compensation, a full inquiry and a publication of those killed. In addition they have called on the Chinese government to punish those responsible for the deaths. The call comes as the twentieth anniversary to the protest approaches.

But the parents’ calls are likely to be ignored by authorities as China prefers to look towards the future instead of the past. In an open letter to the government the call is made to “break the taboo”.
The letter acknowledges the decision will be difficult for the government but insist it was important for everyone to know the truth. "This will require each deputy to demonstrate extraordinary courage and resourcefulness, political courage and wisdom, to break the taboo and face head-on the unspeakable tragedy that took place 20 years ago and resolve 'June Fourth' with the truth," part of the letter reads. "China has become like an airtight iron chamber and all the demands of the people about June 4, all the anguish, lament and moaning of the victims' relatives and the wounded have been sealed off" [BBC].

In 2006 it was reported that one mother had received some 70,000 yuan in compensation [BBC] Tang Deying had been given the money as a “hardship allowance”. Tang’s 15 year old son, Zhou Guocong, died in police custody in Chengdu days after the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. But he is only one of many killed or maimed on the 4th June 1989. Chinese authorities have defended their actions and say 241 died in the clampdown. However, although number remain disputed, it is widely believed the number of dead exceeds 2,000 [Wikipedia].

Protests still take place but have never reach the scale of those seen twenty years ago. Following the milk scandal there have been protests by parents calling for investigations and compensation. Even when some of those involved in contaminating milk with the industrial chemical melamine were found guilty, some parents were angry they were not all give death sentences. In the aftermath of the devastating Beichuan earthquake last year parents called for the government to investigate why so many schools collapsed. Private concerns are also voiced, sometimes with tragic consequences.
This week three protesters set themselves alight as police approached their car which was parked at the junction of Wangfujing and Chang'an Avenue, near to Tiananmen Square. One witness said an incendiary device exploded when police opened the door of a small silver-grey car which was bedecked with three small Chinese flags. The motive behind their apparent protest was not clear, though authorities say they were petitioners with “personal grievances” [BBC]. Signatories to the Charter 08 document have also been detained, questioned by the police and put under pressure at work. The charter calls for a radical overhaul of China's political system by introducing elections, a new constitution and an independent judiciary [BBC].

Many activists have been jailed or placed under house arrest. Even party members have not been immune to Beijing’s crackdown on dissent. Bao Tong, an adviser to the Communist Party's general secretary Zhao Ziyang at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, was jailed for seven years after opposing the crackdown. Zhao Ziyang, who also voiced his opposition to the military crackdown, lost his position as party boss and replaced by Jiang Zemin. Even years after the protests, those reporting on events have felt the long arm of the law. Journalist Shi Tao was jailed for 10 years in 2005 after publicising the authority’s efforts in censoring news in the run up to the 15th anniversary [BBC].

The BBC and other western media often gives the impression that China is like living in a totalitarian police state. However, while it is true that raising voices of dissent will attract attention from authorities, most Chinese people get on with their daily lives without any direct interference. Not that everyone is entirely happy with their lot. Just as in many developed countries in the world there are grumbles about the government, the recession and domestic issues.
This week a US state department report said that in 2008 Chinese authorities had "committed extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners, and used forced labour". Its publication came a week after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China. During her trip Clinton had “candid discussions on human rights issues” but many human rights organisations said she had failed to go far enough in criticising China’s abuse of human rights. China meanwhile has condemned the US state department report. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma ZhaoXu said the US should “stop acting as a human rights guardian" and “reflect on its own human rights problems” [BBC / Xinhua].

The report [PDF] says China “continued to limit citizens' privacy rights and tightly controlled freedom of speech, the press (including the Internet), assembly, movement, and association”. In particular it accused Chinese authorities of committing “extrajudicial killings and torture, coerced confessions of prisoners, and used forced labour”. Amongst those who were subject to increased detention and harassment were “dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders, and defense lawyers” according to the report. The 27 page document also singled out many African states including Zimbabwe, the DRC and Sudan. Other Asian countries were criticised for their abuse of human rights. Amongst them were Burma [Myanmar], Malaysia and Thailand where child labour and extrajudicial killings were said to be carried out. The Russian Federation also met with much criticism from the US report. But of some 40 countries mentioned in the document, it was the section on China [US govt] that the media focused upon.
Xinhua, the state news agency, dismissed the findings in the report saying it "turned a blind eye to the efforts and historic achievements China has made in human rights". And in a sharp response to the US report, China has released its own critique of America. Published in part by the state owned news agency Xinhua, the 9,000 word report says the US is gripped with an epidemic of crime, racism and social problems. Americans’ social, economic or cultural rights were not protected, the article claims, and says that many suffer from “personality disorders”. And with reference to this week’s report issued by the State Department, the article accuse the US of hypocrisy. The criticism of other countries by the US amounted to the “practice of throwing stones at others while living in a glass house”, Xinhua said.

The report, entitled Human Rights Record of the United States in 2008, was published by the Information Office of the State Council and is critical of the one-sidedness of the US report. "As in previous years, the reports are full of accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but mention nothing of the widespread human rights abuses on its own territory" the report says.
The report was scathing of America’s social situation. “People in the United States saw their pension plans shrink, health insurance cut and school tuition increase, while drugs, suicide and other social problems prevailed” it states. The Chinese report also highlighted issues of civil rights saying that US government surveillance of online activities had increased and new legislation on wiretapping had been written into law. China also focused on the increasing crime rates across the US. Quoting figures published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the report said crime was growing with over 1.4 million violent crimes, including 17,000 murders and 9.8 million property crimes in 2007 alone [report - full text / report - full text in Chinese].

China, is not itself in the habit of publishing crime figures, so it is difficult to make comparisons. But it is clear the US have certainly rattled some cages within China. The tit for tat in this propaganda war is however likely to continue for some time [BBC].

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