Friday, June 24, 2011

Ai Weiwei released but China remains a terror state

In what appeared to be a moment of contrition the renowned artist Ai Weiwei was released by Beijing authorities this week. But his freedom brings little comfort to those calling for greater democracy and freedom in China. And far from being a sign of contrition or mercy, Ai Weiwei's release seems to be only an attempt to avert unwanted attention.

Held captive for exactly 80 days, Ai Weiwei's arrest held up a spotlight on China and its failure to observe basic human rights. While authorities insisted the artist was detained in connection to "economic crimes" his incarceration was seen by outsiders as little more than retribution against someone who had become outspoken about China's leadership. Indeed his arrest came after many others had been 'disappeared' following online calls for Arab style protests seen across the Middle East over the last few months.

Authorities in China began to round up dozens of artists, lawyers and dissidents in the wake of calls for a Jasmine Revolution in late February. News was stifled, foreign journalists and photographers were beaten and Internet censorship tightened as authorities targeted software which circumvented the Great Firewall of China. Even Google's GMail service was continually interrupted with many people complaining they could not access the service.

Human rights groups hailed Ai Weiwei's release on Thursday morning as a victory but also pointed out that many other people remained behind bars or under house arrest.

Ai's release "is an important reminder that pressure works," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, of the international campaign to free the activist artist. "But there is no indication that the government is taking a softer line towards criticism."

Indeed the artist himself was less outspoken as he was greeted by reporters outside his home. He said only that he could not comment as he was on bail and asked for understanding by the media. "I am out on bail for one year, that is all I can say," the artist told reporters.

Catherine Baber, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific deputy director, said that pressure was still being applied. "Ai is physically free but clearly muzzled, and that's not anyone's idea of freedom," she said. In fact as part of his bail terms Ai cannot move from Beijing, use Twitter or give media interviews [Reuters].

China's state media said the artist was released only by virtue of the fact he "confessed" to tax evasion and that he would endeavour to pay back money he owed. A short piece published on Xinhua said the artists was also released because of his suffering a chronic illness [Independent / Guardian / Irish Times / TelegraphBBC].

One of many arrests

Ai Weiwei's arrest on 3rd April in Beijing was the highest-profile arrest, but he was not the only person to feel the iron grip of state control. Ran Yunfei (冉云飞), a well known Chinese writer and a high-profile democracy activist and blogger, was arrested in late March shortly after the start of the 2011 Chinese protests. He was formally arrested for inciting subversion of state power in China and remains imprisoned in the Dujiangyan Detention Center.

Other arrests followed and at least 35 leading Chinese activists have now been arrested or detained by authorities including a leading Sichuan human rights activist Chen Wei (陈卫),Tiananmen Square protest student leader, Ding Mao (丁矛) and Teng Biao (滕彪) of the OCI.

Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, speaking shortly after the first arrests, said the situation in China was worsening. "The numbers point to a bad situation that is only getting worse. In the matter of a few days, we have seen more cases of prominent lawyers subjected to prolonged disappearances, more criminal charges that may carry lengthy prison sentences for activists, more home raids, and a heavier reliance on extralegal measures," Xia said.

Aside of those in jail, up to 200 people are believed to be subject to reinforced supervision or house arrest. And since the 19 February protest announcement, more than a hundred people have been summoned or questioned by police.

Broken promises

This is a far cry from the stated aims and ambitions of China's leaders themselves. After securing their right to hold the Olympic games in 2008 China promised to open up and to relax media and Internet restrictions.

Even before China's bid to hold the games was granted there were doubts raised. Human rights concerns expressed by Amnesty International and politicians in both Europe and the United States were considered by the delegates, according to IOC Executive Director François Carrard. However Carrard and others suggested that the selection might lead to improvements in human rights in China. What has been seen in the three years since is a deterioration of human rights and a further tightening of restrictions on free speech and the media.

As part of an agreement with the IOC, China said it would allow special areas where protests might be allowed during the Olympic games. Liu Shaowu announced on 23rd July that the Public Security Bureau would issue permits for protesting in protest zones during the Olympics. The three designated locations were Purple Bamboo Park, Temple of the Sun, and Beijing World Park. However it was later reported that of 77 applications, 74 were withdrawn, two suspended and one vetoed. In fact some of those who applied for permits even went missing or were detained.

China pledged in its Olympic bid that it would allow open media access during the games, many groups said it failed to do so. While some estimated 20,000 journalists had been assured unfettered Internet access by the IOC's Jacques Rogge, Sun Weide (孙伟德) of the Beijing Organizing Committee announced in late July that China would allow only "convenient" access – still blocking sites which reference controversial content. The IOC and broadcasters were uncertain as to whether the Beijing authorities would allow them to broadcast live from locations such as Tiananmen Square, fearing protests. In 2001, Beijing had announced there would be complete freedom for the media to report in China. But after lengthy discussions, broadcasters were only permitted to broadcast between the hours of 6-10 am and 9-11 pm with prior permission and live interviews were banned at all times.

After the games had closed, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) issued a statement noting that there was "welcome progress in terms of accessibility and the number of press conferences within the Olympic facilities". However, the FCCC said it was "alarmed at the use of violence, intimidation and harassment outside". The club confirmed more than 30 cases of reporting interference since 25th July that year, and said it was checking "at least 20 other reported incidents".

It was not only journalists who met with the full force of China's state police. According to an article published in Business Week, at least 50 Beijing human-rights activists were either arrested, put under house arrest, or banished from the capital during the Games. In January 2008, AIDS and human rights activist Hu Jia, who was already under house arrest, was taken into custody on 27th December 2007 for "inciting subversion". Hu had criticised China's hosting of the Olympics by comparing it to Nazi Germany's hosting of the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

Hu pleaded not guilty on charges of "inciting subversion of state power" at his trial in March 2008 but was sentenced to 3.5 years in jail on April 3rd.

Terror state

In 2008 British Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott appeared on the BBC programme Newsnight and described China as a 'terror state'. An outspoken critic of China's human rights record he has lobbied the UN on the torture and lack of religious freedom in China. He has also criticised Chinese officials directly though his words so often fall on deaf ears [YouTube].

Writing in the Guardian soon after Ai Weiwei's arrest, McMillan-Scott questioned whether the EU should cut of dialogue with China.

China has been a "strategic partner" of the EU since the mid-90s. He talks of his watchword being "not just business as usual, but also politics as usual". In the 14 years of the dialogue's existence China has yielded no tangible results and it provides a fig leaf for the most arbitrary, brutal and murderous regime in world history, McMillan-Scott asserts.

The UN human rights council supposed to be a reformed process. Just as Libya was recently suspended, by any normal standards China too should be expelled, he argues.

This Sunday Hu Jia is set to be released after three and a half years in prison. It is not a victory however, only a stark reminder that those who speak out against the state in China do so at great risk [Globe & Mail].

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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