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11 December 1998

Why sucking up to China has failed

Our leaders just express dismay while they keep stamping on human rights. Jonathan

By Jonathan Mirsky

Tony Blair and Robin Cook keep bragging about their subtle manoeuvrings with Beijing over human rights – yet the number of Chinese dissidents being arrested increases. Set against this grim truth are Whitehall’s reassuring references to the trip to China of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson – wholly unsuccessful; to Beijing’s signing of the International Human Rights Covenant – not ratified and already flouted; and to discussions of political reform – some discussants are already in prison. These assurances are clones of the mendacious US claims that behind-the-scenes discussions in Beijing succeed where confrontation fails.

Americans cite as favourite examples the release into exile of China’s two most famous dissidents, Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan. In fact both were permitted to fly to America in exchange for summit meetings between Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton; when necessary China has plenty more such bargaining chips. Human rights play no part in such deals. While Clinton was in China in June, some dissidents were arrested as he arrived and others as soon as he left, despite the president’s media triumph – his human rights debate with Jiang.

In October, during Tony Blair’s visit to Beijing and his wife’s production of a British-style mock trial (complete with a bewigged judge), the security organs arrested Xu Wenli, China’s best-known remaining dissident still at large. Blair expressed his dismay and Xu was released. The Prime Minister gloated on television that this demonstrated his clout on human rights. The Chinese spokesman later denied that human rights had been on the agenda during Blair’s discussions with President Jiang and Premier Zhu Rongji.

Xu was scooped up again last week during detentions and trials so numerous that I bet Amnesty’s computers ran hot. Xu and his colleagues in the nascent Democratic Party, Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin, now face charges of treason. The Foreign Ministry spokesman stated last week that Xu “is suspected of involvement in activities damaging to national security and has violated relevant criminal codes”. This is a serious charge in China, where the criminal code stipulates that state security can be damaged by “violent or non-violent activities aimed at overthrowing government authorities”.

Wang Youcai, who served two years after Tiananmen, was charged this week with “inciting the overthrow of the state”, organising a meeting of the Democratic Party, and accepting US$800 from abroad to buy a computer. The charge carries a sentence of ten years to life. Meanwhile, a professor whose son was killed during Tiananmen is under virtual house arrest for mobilising the mothers of other killed children. As for the hundreds arrested during Tiananmen, many remain in the gulag, and China stands first on Amnesty’s global list of extrajudicial executioners.

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Blair’s boasting reminded me of Robin Cook, who told Nick Clark on the World at One that after he had chatted with Jiang Zemin in January, Wei Jingsheng was released. This was false; Wei had been released and flown to the US on 16 November, and Cook had played no part.

Western leaders congratulated the Chinese for signing (but not ratifying) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October, one day before Blair arrived in Beijing. China’s dissidents, however, noted that the government had already expressed reservations about those sections of the covenant guaranteeing freedom of association.

Those reservations proved well founded last week when Li Peng, until recently China’s premier and the leader who announced martial law in Tiananmen Square on 20 May 1989, declared that no political party would be allowed to exist which opposes the basic policies of the Communist Party or its leadership.

The blunt reality, which Blair and Clinton will have to face if not swallow, is that sucking up to China has failed: in complete disregard of the International Human Rights Covenant, charges of sedition are flying freely, citizens are in custody or in prison for writing, e-mailing, speaking and meeting.

Foreign friends of China, like Jimmy Carter, point to occasional village elections as a sign of emerging political reform. Others note that political discussion is now common among some intellectuals. But most of the dozens of people arrested since the Clinton and Blair visits are members of Xu Wenli’s Democratic Party, which calls for a constitutional democracy they would call the Third Republic.

An army veteran and electrician, Xu Wenli was an active organiser and pamphleteer in 1978-79 at Beijing’s Democracy Wall, where Wei Jingsheng, too, received a sentence of 15 years. Xu was arrested in 1981 and in 1982 sentenced to 15 years, of which he served 12. For the last few years he and his colleagues have been harassed, detained, released and cautioned by the police. Others have been tried and sentenced, but none was famous enough to cause official concern in London and Washington.

The State Department and Whitehall both expressed “dismay” at last week’s arrests but named only Xu. He has become one of those men which Washington and London use to display their support for Chinese human rights. But since the US and the UK have both proclaimed that they will do nothing in public but “deplore” or feel “dismayed”, men like Xu have become valuable bargaining chips. He may well end up in the United States. Such was the fate of Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, who were swapped for summit meetings, and of lesser exiles whose releases led the US to make substantial gestures to China, such as technology transfers, the removal of military material from forbidden export lists and visits by Chinese generals to America.

How big a threat can a tiny political movement be? Looked at from inside the Politburo, a big threat. Politics in China can be jolted by the unexpected. As Lenin said and Mao repeated, “A single spark can cause a prairie fire”. Although Tiananmen is still officially termed an “incident”, President Jiang tells state visitors such as Bill Clinton that had the demonstrations throughout China not been crushed, national stability would have been shattered.

The Communist Party perceives people like Xu Wenli as possible reincarnations of its own founders. The party was officially organised by a handful of intellectuals and Soviet advisers in 1921. It had been founded the previous year by men who were soon purged, their act erased from history. That small party survived years of Chiang Kai-shek’s persecution, Soviet betrayal, Japanese occupation and civil war to emerge victorious in 1949 to rule China. Before that victory the party had formed a fragile national underground network, mobilised intellectuals on to its side and into its ranks, and attracted favourable attention from foreign journalists such as Edgar Snow and eventually most of the international press corps.

This explains why intellectuals have been muzzled since even before the 1949 victory, and afterwards harried in campaign after campaign; and why foreign reporters are treated as enemies and some reporters, including myself, are either expelled or asked to leave and denied re-entry. Above all, it explains why wholly non-violent critics like Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and Xu Wenli are extinguished like sparks. On the day Chairman Mao came to power in Beijing he proclaimed in Tiananmen that “the Chinese people have stood up”. As the joke goes in Beijing, Mao should then have sat down. Instead, his Orwellian successors are still stamping on people’s faces while our own leaders murmur their “dismay”.