ON APRIL 18, Chinese president Hu Jintao will begin his first official visit to the United States as head of state of the world's most populous nation. In the weeks preceding his visit, much media attention has focused on trade, including a six-month delay in voting on the Schumer-Graham bill, which proposes to slap a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese exports to the United States if the yuan is not revalued. Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, during his recent trip to Beijing, reiterated the call for China to open further its market to American goods and to enforce more stringently the laws protecting intellectual property rights. Trade is expected to feature prominently on the agenda of the Bush-Hu meeting at the White House on April 20.
But a visit to the United States by a Chinese leader is also an opportunity to consider the state of human rights in China. China's denial of the right to communicate with one's fellow citizens warrants as much attention as its refusal to make toys and textiles more expensive for U.S. consumers. High-level visits are usually preceded by the release of a handful of prisoners of conscience as a goodwill gesture towards Washington and as a preemptive move to keep human rights off the summit's agenda. This month's visit is no exception.
On March 28, Beijing-based activist Hu Jia was freed after 41 days of detention and questioning. Hu Jia, who suffers from hepatitis B, said in an interview with Radio Free Asia that during his ordeal he was denied medication, despite his pleading. Hu Jia, an outspoken democracy advocate, had taken part in a hunger strike to protest police brutality in China.
On March 15, Phuntsog Nyidron, a Tibetan nun who had spent 15 years in jail for opposing China's rule of Tibet, was allowed to leave Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, for the United States. She had been released from the notorious Drapchi Prison in 2004 but not permitted to leave China. Before her departure, Chinese authorities warned her not to discuss her situation, since her family remains in Tibet.
On March 9, Beijing released 72-year-old democracy activist Tong Shidong, reducing his ten-year sentence by three years. The retired physics professor had been charged with subversion for trying in 1999 to establish a branch of the banned Chinese Democracy party.
On February 22, former newspaper editor Yu Dongyue was released after serving 17 years of a 20-year prison sentence. At the height of the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Yu Dongyue and two friends threw paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong. The three were found guilty of "counter-revolutionary destruction and counter-revolutionary incitement." After years of abuse and solitary confinement, Yu Dongyue was a broken man upon his release, "with the reasoning power of a three- or four-year old," his sister told Radio Free Asia's Mandarin service the night he arrived home from prison.
These releases do not indicate an improvement in China's human rights record; rather, they serve as reminders that the jailing and intimidation of those who dare to criticize the government persist. Indeed, in its 2005 press freedom index, the Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders rated China 159 out of 167 countries. Beijing remains the world's leading incarcerator of journalists and cyber-dissidents. Its record is characterized by cases such as these:
But for every Zhao Yan and Shi Tao mentioned in media reports or at congressional hearings, scores more languish forgotten. Their names are likely to remain unfamiliar to us, absent greater media coverage of their plight. According to Reporters Without Borders, 31 journalists and 64 Internet dissidents are currently imprisoned in China.
Beijing's actions to restrict the free flow of information are not limited to jailing. Those who refuse to toe the party line often experience intimidation or risk being fired from their jobs, as demonstrated by the January 24 suspension of Bing Dian (Freezing Point), a popular weekly supplement to the China Youth Daily. The supplement's chief editor, Li Datong, and deputy editor, Lu Yuegang, had at times pushed what authorities deemed acceptable limits on expression by running exposés of corruption and critiques of media censorship. The article that led to the publication's suspension was one that criticized the nationalistic bent in Chinese history books.
While Freezing Point was reinstated on March 1, Li Datong and Lu Yuegang--the driving force behind its gutsy coverage of sensitive topics--were transferred to the news research department of the China Youth Daily, organ paper of the Communist Youth League, the institutional power base of president Hu Jintao. Upon hearing the decision to put them in deep freeze, Li Datong told Radio Free Asia with evident sarcasm that he and Lu Yuegang "welcomed the opportunity to spend time reading and recharging" as neither had taken a vacation in 11 years.
The suspension of Freezing Point was not an isolated episode. Beijing's clampdown represents a continuing pattern. For example, on February 8, Chen Jieren, the 34-year-old editor of Gongyi Shibao (Public Interest Times), was sacked. Chen, who once vowed to make Gongyi Shibao a newspaper that "reports the truth with a conscience," had published in January an investigative piece on officials who embezzled public funds earmarked for flood victims.
While Chinese journalists have always worked under the watchful eye of the censor, restrictions on the media, including the Internet, have tightened during Hu Jintao's reign. In its 2005 World Press Freedom Review released on March 30, the Vienna-based International Press Institute accused Beijing of intensifying its control of cyberspace. One mechanism employed was the enactment in September 2005 of a new set of rules regarding online dissemination of information and commentary. The restrictions apply to all news of a political and military nature, as well as "sudden social incidents" such as mining disasters, labor unrest, and protests. The new rules also stipulate that individuals who wish to disseminate information or commentaries on the Internet must first register as news organizations, and that websites that violate the rules can be ordered to close and pay a fine.
Within days of the enactment of the new laws, the Yannan Forum, a popular chat room, was shut down for "rectification." The Yannan Forum had recently been inundated with postings debating a campaign by residents of Taishi, in the southern province of Guangdong, to recall their elected village chief on grounds of corruption. The recall campaign had generated great interest among legal professionals, who regarded it as a test case of Beijing's commitment to democratic elections at the village level.
Unsurprisingly, the suspension of Freezing Point, the closure of the Yannan Forum, and Beijing's other efforts to prevent the free flow of information were not reported by China's official media. Foreign broadcasters such as Radio Free Asia helped fill the gap, providing regular coverage of these events to listeners in China. A week after Radio Free Asia aired the news about Freezing Point, a Beijing resident told the Mandarin service's listener hotline that had he not heard of the suspension on the radio, he would not have known why his favorite supplement had disappeared.
In China, there is no right to know. What citizens may learn is determined by the censors. President Hu Jintao's upcoming visit provides a welcome opportunity for a free media--that of the United States--to make more of an issue of the Chinese leaders' remarkable efforts to control the thinking of their population.
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Jennifer Chou is the director of Radio Free Asia's Mandarin Service. This article first appeared in The Weekly Standard dated April 24, 2006.