China’s Future Path: Trust or Fear its People

Guest Commentary

The Beijing Olympics are less than a year away. While China’s extensive construction program is well underway, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is retreating from its promise to the International Olympic Committee to improve human rights.

The PRC shows increasing confidence in dealing with the world. At home, however, the Chinese leadership fears its own people.

Amnesty International recently reported on the disappointing status of human rights in China: “While positive steps have been made in some limited areas, … these are overshadowed by other negative developments—in particular the growing crackdown on Chinese human rights activists and journalists, as well as the continued use of ‘Re-education through Labour’ and other forms of detention without trial.” Moreover, “the Olympics are being used to justify such repression in the name of ‘harmony’ or ‘social stability.’”

Repression is on the rise. Earlier this year Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the Chinese government was engaging in its “largest ‘clean-up’ of protestors and rights activists in years.” HRW pointed to “increasingly violent crackdowns on protesters, petitioners and rights activists across the country and a surge in house arrests of activists.”

There has been some improvement in “the freedom of foreign journalists to cover news stories in China in the run-up to and during the Olympics,” Amnesty says. However, 40 percent of members of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China report government intimidation, while their Chinese employees are routinely spied upon and harassed. Moreover, Amnesty warns that these new “regulations were introduced against a background of increased official controls over the distribution of foreign news within China and a renewed crackdown on domestic journalism, including print, broadcast and online media.”

Periodicals have been closed or forced to dismiss their employees. Posts by online publications have been restricted. In August, the group Reporters Without Borders pointed to 29 imprisoned Chinese journalists.

The Internet is a favorite target of the authorities. Web sites have been closed; Internet users are being forced to register under their own names; writers and journalists have been jailed. The government employs an estimated 30,000 cyber-snoops. In August, the Chinese government pressed major blog providers to agree to enforce government standards.

Moreover, warns Amnesty, “While the Chinese authorities have shown growing levels of tolerance for some forms of rights activism which are not perceived to threaten the status quo, activists who report more widely on violations, challenge policies which are deemed to be politically sensitive or try to rally others to their cause are facing heightened levels of abuse.” Surveillance, detention, imprisonment and physical abuse all have been deployed against human rights campaigners. Lawyers who defend human rights activists also face attack.

Religious persecution continues. The government has initiated a crackdown on foreign missionaries and tightened control over house churches. At least 15 leaders of the underground church were arrested in six different provinces as part of a recent drive “against illegal religious and evil cult activity,” stated the government. Severe repression continues against Falun Gong practitioners.

This is a sad record for a nation poised to become one of the globe’s leading geopolitical actors.

What to do to help the Chinese people? Sanctions, including an Olympics boycott, would antagonize Chinese citizens as well as leaders—without improving the situation in China.

But people of good will should speak out on behalf of the Chinese people. President George W. Bush called his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, to account at the Asia Pacific Cooperation meeting in Sydney in September. Asian and European leaders should add their voices.

Their efforts should be buttressed by private protests. The International Olympic Committee should weigh in, reminding the Chinese government of its commitment to improve human rights.

While the criticism should be sharp, it should point to a positive end. That is, the Chinese government should be urged to follow the logic of its reach for global influence.

A political leadership hoping to win legitimacy and defuse social protest at home should give its citizens a stake in its government. A government demanding respect from the international community should respect its people. The leaders of a powerful nation should trust their people with freedom.

Although outsiders cannot force the People’s Republic of China to respect the human rights of its own people, they can encourage, pressure and shame the Chinese authorities to do so. There’s no better opportunity to act on behalf of the Chinese people than in advance of the 2008 Olympics.