WORLD REPORT 1999 - China and Tibet

Despite some encouraging developments, China’s human rights practices remained cause for concern. On the positive side, intellectuals had greater freedom to debate political and economic reform; some notable prisoners were released, including student leader Wang Dan; community-based organizations continued to emerge; and the government signed a major human rights treaty. A sharp increase in the number of lawsuits brought by citizens against officials through administrative courts seemed to indicate a growing consciousness of individual rights. At the same time, strict controls remained on expression, association and assembly, with political and religious dissidents, labor activists, and supporters of nationalist movements often facing arrest and detention.

Western governments seized on tentative signs of tolerance to strengthen calls for engagement, a desirable goal, but one that in policy terms all too often meant silence on China’s egregious human rights record. Visits of world leaders to China were marked more by symbolism than substance and were often accompanied by preventive detention of known dissidents. In general, China played an obstructionist role in efforts to strengthen international human rights, most notably in discussions on the International Criminal Court. The government in Beijing took a largely hands-off approach to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, but this may have been due to the generally pro-Beijing policies of the SAR government.

Human Rights Developments
President Jiang Zemin’s apparently successful consolidation of power during the year and the appointment in March of Zhu Rongji as premier led to speculation that the two might work in tandem to promote limited political reform. The appearance of books that would earlier have been banned, such as one linking corruption to the lack of checks in the political structure, and greater tolerance of public demonstrations during the year seemed to point in that direction. But China specialists pointed out that such openings, followed by crackdowns, have happened so often in China at times when they served the interests of those in power that it would be foolhardy to conclude that this represented any lasting liberalization.


Greater scope for scholarly discussion of reform did not mean increased tolerance of political dissent. Those who publicly challenged the Communist Party, organized petitions to senior officials on political issues, maintained links to dissidents abroad, or had contacts with the foreign media were particularly vulnerable to arrest and detention.

Thirteen activists from Hangzhou, Zhejiang province were detained for up to seven weeks after they attempted to register an opposition group, the China Democratic Party, on June 25. On September 10, officials in Shandong and Hubei provinces expressed willingness to register the party if petitioners paid a fee, but the next day, an official in Beijing overruled them. Would-be CDP party members also presented applications to register in the northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jinan, Liaoning, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. They were questioned by authorities and in some cases, briefly detained.

A few notable prisoners were released at politically opportune moments. Wang Dan, the 1989 student leader, was released into exile on April 19, before President Clinton’s China trip and after the U.S. abandoned any effort to sponsor a China resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Bishop Zeng Jingmu was freed after a high-profile vist by a delegation of American religious leaders. But hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners were still serving long sentences for non-violent activities. They including Li Hai, imprisoned since 1995 for gathering information about Tiananmen Square detainees; Jampa Ngodrup, a Tibetan held since 1989 for copying name lists of those arrested or injured in pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet; and Gao Yu, a journalist arrested in 1993 on charges of “leaking state secrets” for gathering economic data that had not yet been officially released. Liu Nianchun, a labor activist, continued to be held in a labor camp beyond the May 21 expiration of his three-year sentence.

Many dissidents were sentenced during the year to reeducation through labor, an administrative sentence that can lead to detention for up to three years in a labor camp without judicial review. They included Yang Qinheng, a Shanghai activist, who received a three-year term on March 27, a month after he was arrested for reading an open letter on Radio Free Asia citing workers’ right to unionize. In early April Wu Ruojie, a rock musician, and Li Yi, a businessman, were sentenced for “divulging state secrets” about the arrest of four poets in Guiyang, Guizhou province.

Overseas connections often meant trouble. Li Qingxi, an unemployed former health worker from Shaanxi, was detained on January 16 and later ordered to serve a one-year reeducation through labor sentence at home for calling on workers to form independent unions, contacting overseas labor and democratic organizations, and listening to the Voice of America. Wang Tingjin, an Anhui mathematics teacher, was accused of assisting in the January 26 illegal entry into China of U.S. resident Wang Bingzhang. In mid-April he was sentenced to two years’ reeducation through labor. Chen Zengxiang, another dissident with connections to Wang, was reportedly sentenced in October to seven years in prison on charges of leaking state secrets, in connection with his distribution of a list of Shandong political prisoners. In October, Shi Binhai, a journalist at the state-run China Economic Times and co-editor of a book on political reform, was indicted for collusion with overseas dissident organizations.

China made a concerted effort to keep overseas dissidents and their relatives out of China. On April 4, less than an hour after she arrived at her parents’ apartment in Sichuan province, police took Li Xiaorong, a research scholar at the University of Maryland, into custody. She was traveling on a U.S. passport and had a valid visa, but according to police officers, her work in the U.S. on behalf of human rights in China was unacceptable. She was only one of several activists deported or turned away at the border during the year.

Interviews with the foreign media often triggered harassment. In June, shortly after his political rights were formally restored,former political prisoner Bao Tong, the highest-ranking official to be imprisoned in connection with the June 1989 protests, was given repeated warnings after he gave interviews to the U.S. print and broadcast media during President Clinton’s visit.

It was routine for public security officers to hold dissidents briefly in connection with the visits of foreign dignitaries. In Xi’an, for example, President Clinton’s first stop in China, police detained four people; they were released shortly afterwards. In September, democracy activists in Wuhan had their homes searched before the arrival in China of French Premier Lionel Jospin.

The Chinese government remained concerned about the potential for increased worker unrest, particularly with ongoing reforms of state enterprises that resulted in widespread layoffs, and officials moved quickly to stop activities in support of labor rights. Zhang Shanguang, founder of the Association to Protect Worker Rights, an organization set up to help laid-off state workers, was detained on July 21 and charged a month later with endangering state security. On August 24, Li Bifeng, a former tax official in Mianyang city, Sichuan province, was sentenced to seven years on a politically motivated fraud charge. Human rights organizations believe his real offense was to have informed international human rights groups about the violent dispersal by police of massive worker protests across Sichuan province.

Religious persecution continued, as did concern that unchecked religious practice was a threat to social stability. New regulations were adopted in Guangzhou city and Zhejiang province requiring religious communities to accept government control, restrict contact with overseas organizations, and register with authorities or face fines and other penalties. In May, Hunan provincial officials banned the “indiscriminate” establishment of temples and outdoor Buddha statues. In April and again in June, officials in Gansu “invited” underground Catholic clerics in at least two dioceses to week-long meetings to pressure them to join the officially recognized church. Some religious leaders who rejected state control of their activities were detained, usually under reeducation through labor provisions.

China made new efforts to control the flow of information. On December 30, 1997, draconian new regulations titled “Administrative Measures for Ensuring the Security of Computer Information Technology, the Internet” mandated fines as high as 15,000 renminbi (approximately U.S.$1,800 at the time) and threatened unspecified “criminal punishments” for use of the Internet agencies. In March 25, Lin Hai, a computer company manager, was detained in Shanghai and later charged with “inciting to subvert the government” for providing a U.S.-based dissident magazine with the e-mail addresses of 30,000 users in China. He was believed to be still in detention as of September, although the prosecutor had rejected the case for lack of evidence.

Media censorship continued. In August, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee announced restrictions on reporting corruption cases involving senior officials, hitherto unreported activities of deceased leaders, and immoral social phenomena. Earlier, officials limited independent reporting on natural disasters such as an earthquake in Hebei on January 11 and the disastrous floods along the Yangtze river. Chinese authorities also routinely interfered with reporting by foreign journalists.

As of October, China was reportedly planning to amend its adoption law, facilitating domestic adoptions. Such an amendment could significantly reduce the number of children in state orphanages, many of whom suffer from inadequate care.

On October 20 and 21, China hosted a two-day international symposium on human rights to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government used the meeting to argue against universal standards.

The human rights situation in Tibet remained a major source of concern. At the end of 1997 Chinese government officials made clear that a campaign against the Dalai Lama and pro-independence forces would continue.

At least ten and possibly twelve prisoners reportedly died following two protests in Drapchi prison in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in May. The first protest took place on May 1, the second on May 4, on the day of a visit to the prison by ministers from the E.U. troika countries. During both, prisoners shouted slogans in support of independence and the Dalai Lama. In the weeks following the E.U. visit, scores of prisoners were interrogated, beaten, and placed in solitary confinement. Some of the prisoners were reported to have died in early June. Two reportedly were killed by gunfire during one of the protests, while others were said to have died from beatings. Authorities in Tibet maintained that many of the deaths were suicides. No independent investigation had taken place by the end of the year.

Details of retaliation against prisoners involved in a earlier protest during the visit of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in October 1997 became known in 1998. Three prisoners who shouted political slogans reportedly were beaten and held in solitary confinement for a lengthy period before having their prison terms extended between three and ten years.

Prison conditions in Tibet, as in China, were said to be poor, frequently resulting in prisoners’ ill-health. Some prisoners were also believed to have died as a result of punishment. Yeshe Samten, a monk, died on May 6, six days after he was released from Trisam prison, reportedly as a result of torture he had suffered during his two-year sentence. The E.U. ministers reported that they were told there were some 1,800 prisoners in Tibet, of whom some 200 were held for state security crimes. Unofficial figures are much higher.

A “patriotic education campaign” continued during the year designed to force Tibetans, especially monks and nuns, to denounce the Dalai Lama, accept the child recognized by Chinese authorities as the Panchen Lama, and admit that Tibet has always been a part of China. As a result of the campaign, authorities reported that 76 percent of Tibetan monasteries and nunneries had been “rectified.” Monks and nuns who refused to be “educated” faced expulsion.

It remained unclear as of October whether Gendun Choekyi Nyima, the nine-year-old boy recognized by the Dalai Lama in 1995 as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, was under house arrest or some other form of custody, and there was conflicting information concerning his whereabouts and living conditions. Chinese authorities repeatedly denied requests, including by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, for access to the boy.

Separatist activity continued in the Muslim region of Xinjiang, but strict censorship of the media and restrictions on access made it almost impossible to obtain accurate information. Dissident organizations claimed that many ethnic Uighurs suspected of supporting the separatist movement were detained and sometimes executed, not only for taking part in violent acts designed, in the words of Chinese officials, “to split the motherland” but also for peaceful advocacy of independence. Scattered incidents, such as a gun battle in April in Ili during which at least two Uighurs and one policeman were killed and a bombing in Khotan in August, indicate continuing violence on the part of both parties.

Hong Kong
At first glance, residents of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong seemed to have more to fear during the year from a deteriorating economy than from mainland political interference. In the first elections under Chinese sovereignty on May 24, pro-democracy candidates won more than 60 percent of the directly elected seats in the Legislative Council (Legco). But the elections themselves were structured so that the democrats could always be outvoted by pro-government elites.

There were other worrying signs as well. In April, the provisional legislature hand-picked by China rushed through the Adaptation of Laws (Interpretive) Bill, a law that effectively transferred immunity from prosecution under local laws from the British Crown to the Chinese government. It followed on a controversial decisions by the SAR Department of Justice not to prosecute the Xinhua News Agency, China’s front for the Communist Party in Hong Kong, for refusingd to turn over files on pro-democracy activist and former legislator Emily Lau as it was required to do under Hong Kong’s Privacy Law. Local courts also ruled that China’s National People’s Congress had the right to override the Basic Law, the document worked out by Britain and China that functions as the SAR’s constitution. Two activists were convicted on public order grounds for defacing the national and SAR flags in May.

While the annual commemoration of the June 4 massacre passed without incident in Hong Kong, and demonstrations in general were permitted to go forward, many pointed out that no incident had occurred in 1998 that had really tested the “one country, two systems” principle. As the economy continued to worsen and the prospect of social unrest increased, the test might not be long in coming.

Defending Human Rights
Independent legal aid organizations, such as Wuhan University’s Center for Protection of Rights of Disadvantaged Citizens, operated openly but gingerly. They were often able to help individuals challenge wrongful actions by officials, but they did not take on highly charged political cases. On September 7, authorities in Jilin province accepted the registration application of a new organization called the Economic and Social Rights Protection Association, designed to protect the rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It was not clear as of October whether the government’s acceptance of the application meant that the new group would indeed be registered by the Civil Affairs Bureau.

Many of those who tried to advocate openly on behalf of political prisoners still faced harassment, intimidation, or arrest. Activists Xu Wenli and Qin Yongmin were unsuccessful in their attempts to officially establish an independent human rights monitoring group in Wuhan in April. On September 22, a dissident named Jiang Qisheng was detained while preparing to publish statements on political and civil liberties. Many individuals who took part in petition drives to advance civil and political rights were briefly detained during the year.

The Role of the International Community
China succeeded in convincing virtually all industrialized countries to substitute “dialogue” for “confrontation” and public criticism during 1998. But the lack of transparency in the various “dialogues” made it impossible to assess whether they were a source of real pressure for change. “Rule of law” programs to promote long-term penal and judicial reforms largely replaced the focus on political prisoners and dissidents on most governments’ agendas. High-level state visits to China, from U.S. President Bill Clinton in June to French Premier Lionel Jospin in September and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in October, underscored a common policy of engagement. International attention to repression in Tibet may have increased during the year, but other key concerns were virtually ignored, including workers’ rights, women’s rights, the death penalty, and repression of ethnic minorities. Few sources of international leverage remained for ending current abuses or pressing for concrete improvements.

United Nations
For the first year since 1990, neither the U.S. nor E.U. tabled a resolution on China at the U.N. Human Rights Commission session in Geneva. China invited High Commissioner Mary Robinson to visit China and Tibet, which she did between September 6 and 14, and promised to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it did in October. Even though both the invitation and the promise to sign the ICCPR were of long standing, both were used by the West to justify dropping the Geneva resolution, and the fact that both the visit and the signing took place were interpreted as the Chinese quid pro quo. It was unclear when China would ratify either the ICCPR or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which it had signed in 1997.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reported to the commission in April on its visit to China and Tibet in October 1997. The report failed to stress the lack of an independent judiciary, but it did strongly criticize the “vague and imprecise” offenses in the Chinese criminal code including those related to state security.

China blocked a Security Council briefing by Mary Robinson in February and again in June, on the grounds that human rights issues belonged only in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council. It apparently feared that to speak of human rights issues in the Security Council could lead to a discussion of Tibet.

European Union
The E.U. led the way in capitulating on human rights. With the U.K. holding the rotating E.U. presidency from January to July, British Foreign Minister Robin Cook met with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Beijing in January. Qian agreed to Robinson’s visit, signing the ICCPR, and scheduled another E.U.-China human rights dialogue. Cook presented an E.U. list of political prisoners.

China, meanwhile, launched an aggressive effort to lobby E.U. states to drop any resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Premier Li Peng visited the Netherlands and signed a $4.5 billion deal with Royal Dutch Shell; other Chinese leaders visited Denmark, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, key countries that had supported previous Geneva resolutions. The Danish foreign minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, signaled a major shift when he told Vice-Premier Li Lanqing that Denmark would deal with rights concerns “through dialogue and open and frank discussion” only. France actively lobbied other E.U. governments to abandon a resolution in Geneva.

On February 23, European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels and agreed on the new approach and formally decided that no E.U. member states would support action in Geneva even if other countries were to sponsor a motion.

A meeting of European and Chinese legal experts took place in Beijing on February 23-24. Some E.U. countries’ ambassadors to China urged China to undertake specific reforms, warning that a “dialogue without results will soon run out of steam and will not be acceptable to public opinion in Europe.” But privately, European diplomats were told that China intended to attach reservations on key provisions of both U.N. covenants.

On March 25, the European Commission presented a new policy on China which was formally adopted by the Council of Ministers in September. The new policy paper “Building a Comprehensive Partnership with China,” stressed expanding economic relations while strengthening dialogue on political issues, including human rights. That theme dominated talks in London on April 2-3 between the new premier, Zhu Rongji, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Commission President Jacques Santer, and Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan. Blair said a positive atmosphere had been created by the E.U.’s decision to abandon a resolution in Geneva and declared that the thaw in relations would lead to rights improvements. He confirmed that three E.U. ambassadors would visit Tibet, but China made no substantive concessions. A joint E.U.-China statement affirmed both sides’ interest in getting China into the World Trade Organization and looked toward “continued E.U.-China dialogue on all aspects of human rights,” supported by technical assistance projects to promote the rule of law. Regular summits would be held annually.

A series of high-level visits to China by European leaders later in the year were aimed at solidifying the improved relationship between China and European Union countries, and included visits by French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in September and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in October. (Switzerland, not an E.U. member, went along with the new approach, hosting a conference in Beijing in October on the rule of law.) Prime Minister Jospin traveled with fifty business leaders and signed major trade deals. In meetings with authorities, he raised concerns about detentions of activists and carried a message from the Dalai Lama. Prime Minister Blair carefully avoided any public criticism of China’s rights abuses; in private discussions with Premier Zhu Rongji, he objected to the detention of dissident Xu Wenli during his visit and raised Tibet.

The E.U.-China human rights dialogue continued with a two-day meeting in Beijing in October, involving experts and officials from China and the E.U. troika countries of Austria, Germany, and Britain. Two European-based nongovernmental organizations took part at E.U. request: Amnesty International and SOS Torture.

United States
In the U.S., Congress increased pressure on the White House to proceed with a Geneva resolution, with the Senate and House both voting in favor of such a resolution in March. But China’s announcement on March 12 that it would sign the ICCPR gave the administration the cover it needed to drop Geneva, which it did on March 16, removing a major irritant in time for Clinton’s trip.

To head off legislation requiring sanctions against governments that restrict religious freedom, the White House sent a high-level delegation of U.S. clerics to China and Tibet (February 9-March 1). The delegation handed over a list of thirty religious activists imprisoned or harassed and met with Jiang Zemin, but while the visit was hailed by the U.S. and China as evidence of a new spirit of cooperation, the delegation received no commitments that religious controls in China would be eased.

Senior U.S. officials traveled to China in April and May, seeking progress on human rights in connection with Clinton’s visit. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during an April 29-30 visit, suggested that some of the remaining post-1989 sanctions on trade programs might be lifted in exchange for such progress. Tibet was prominent on the agenda during the pre-summit talks, with the U.S. pushing for a major breakthrough to help justify the president’s trip. But by setting the dates for the visit without preconditions, the administration squandered much of the leverage the summit offered.

In the weeks leading up to Clinton’s China tour, Congress stepped up pressure on the administration by adopting legislation that would increase Customs Service monitoring of prison labor exports; increase funding for Radio Free Asia; deny visas and travel funds for religious persecutors and officials involved in forced abortions; and increase funding for human rights monitors in the U.S. embassy. The final budget for fiscal year 1999 included $22 million to Radio Free Asia to increase broadcasting to China for twenty-four hours a day and for other broadcasts.

Intense debate in the House on the president’s decision to extend Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status to China for another year focused on the upcoming summit and Clinton’s decision to participate in an official welcoming ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Members of both parties urged him to boycott the ceremony and urged Clinton to meet with dissidents. The House voted on July 23 (264 to 166) to reject a motion overturning Clinton’s renewal of MFN status. Also in July, Congress voted an amendment to change the designation MFN to “NTR” (Normal Trade Relations). But the administration did not push a proposal for permanent NTR for China, thus abolishing the annual renewal process; instead it used the prospect of doing so as a carrot to get concessions on China’s WTO entry.

The President’s China trip was considered a success by officials in both countries. In an unprecedented move, Jiang agreed to have their June 27 news conference broadcast live on Chinese television, although later coverage in the official media was heavily censored. The two leaders had lively exchanges on the 1989 crackdown, Tibet, and other rights issues. Clinton revealed that in private talks, he had urged release of political prisoners and review of those sentenced under security laws that since had been repealed. But he turned aside numerous petitions from dissidents and avoided any meetings with them or family members of the 1989 victims. In Hong Kong, in response to Congressional and media pressure, Clinton held a separate meeting with democracy leader Martin Lee; he also met with other elected legislators and leaders of civic groups.

Clinton’s official talks with Jiang and other leaders did not yield visible progress in terms of prisoner releases, commitments to ease religious persecution, or review of security laws. Of fourteen agreements reached at the summit, only two dealt with human rights: resumption of the bilateral dialogue cut off by Beijing in 1994 (an initial meeting was expected to take place early in 1999); and expanded rule of law exchanges.

Pacific Rim Countries
Other governments also stressed dialogue. Australia’s second human rights dialogue took place in Canberra and Sydney (August 10-11). A program including judicial exchanges and a project on women’s rights were announced, and Beijing agreed to send an observer to Jakarta in September for a meeting of representatives from national human rights institutions in Asia.

Canada hosted a human rights seminar in Vancouver in March focusing on China and invited other Asian governments to send delegates. But Canadian NGOs were denied access to the meetings, which covered a wide range of issues such as the role of judiciary, limitations on freedom of expression, and the relationship between civil and political and

economic and social rights. No public report was issued.

Japan made a major effort to strengthen relations with Beijing. The first official visit by a Chinese defense minister to Tokyo took place in February. China received more Offical Development Assistance (ODA) than any other country in 1997 (the last figures available), under a five-year package: $576.8 million. There was no linkage between ODA and China’s poor human rights record. Instead, Japan focused on its bilateral human rights dialogue with China, with meetings in October 1997 in Tokyo and in June 1998 in Beijing. Japan urged China to sign and ratify the two U.N. covenants and raised the issues of arbitrary detention, status of the so-called “counterrevolutionary offenders,” and conditions in Tibet. There was no public report on the dialogue.

Tokyo allowed the Dalai Lama to visit Japan in April despite intense Chinese pressure, including protests by the Chinese foreign minister to then-Japanese Foreign Minister Keizo Obuchi. Jiang Zemin was due to make an historic visit to Tokyo in early September—the first visit ever by a Chinese president to Japan— but the trip was delayed due to serious flooding in China. It is now scheduled to begin on November 25.

World Bank
The level of World Bank funding to China remained high. Loans in FY1998 totaled U.S.$2.5 billion and included power projects, highway construction, health services, and $150 million for the Tarim Basin (II) irrigation project in Xinjiang. There were no initiatives by any of the bank’s donors to limit funding or to condition multilateral assistance on human rights or workers’ rights improvements.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
State Control of Religion: Update #1, 3/98