(New York, October 10, 2007) – The Chinese government is intensifying repression ahead of the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which opens in Beijing next week, as the climax of a months-long campaign to silence dissent and impose a veneer of social harmony on the capital, Human Rights Watch said today.
“This week we’re seeing the culmination of months of targeted tightening of controls on media, the internet, and freedom of movement for dissidents designed to impose ‘stability’ during the Party Congress,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “But real stability is a product of responding to criticism, not quashing it, and until the party and the government accept that, their goal of a ‘harmonious society’ is simply unattainable.”
The period leading up to and during the Party Congress, which occurs only every five years, is an extremely sensitive time for the government because it is the forum in which the future leadership of the Chinese Communist Party will be announced. This congress entails secretive meetings to determine who will succeed President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao in 2012. The Party Congress is also a magnet for Chinese citizens hoping to petition government leaders for redress of grievances unresolved by grassroots officials.
Recent comments by officials confirm the ongoing crackdown, which is more systematic than the seasonal lockdowns on dissidents ahead of the annual meetings of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress.
Yu’s speech also instructed police to “swiftly uncover, control and take away” any individuals behaving “abnormally” in order to smother possible public protests ahead of and during the Party Congress. His comments were followed in September by China’s Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang’s call for vigilance against possible public unrest.
To counter those perceived threats ahead of the Party Congress, the police have used house arrest, abduction and extrajudicial detention to clear the streets of any possible sources of public dissent. Human Rights Watch said that, since August, the government has particularly targeted petitioners, a floating population of thousands of impoverished and marginalized rural residents who come to the capital to seek redress for injustices ranging from official corruption to illegal land seizures.
Rural residents preparing to go to Beijing to petition for redress during the Party Congress were placed under heightened surveillance by police and in many cases illegally barred from leaving their homes or villages. In September, municipal and provincial police units arrested dozens of petitioners in Beijing and other provinces and either returned them to their home provinces or detained them incommunicado in facilities including requisitioned state-owned hotels. A group of 12 petitioners from Chengdu in Sichuan province who were detained by Beijing police in mid-September remain in custody, while a separate group of 60 petitioners from Shanghai detained and forcibly returned on September 18 by police have likewise not yet been released.
In September, Beijing municipal officials began demolishing a settlement in Beijing where 4,000 petitioners lived on the pretext of road construction. Dozens of petitioners evicted from the Fengtai settlement have ended up in extrajudicial detention at a defacto private jail in Beijing where they are held incommunicado and denied access to legal counsel.
“This abuse of petitioners’ rights clearly demonstrates the Chinese Communist Party’s intolerance of criticism, particularly during the Party Congress,” Richardson said. “The party says it abides by the rule of law, yet it deliberately abuses those who try to raise their grievances against local officials peacefully and legally.”
Already strict controls on the domestic media and internet were further tightened on August 15 with the announcement of a two-month crackdown on “false news.” Liu Binjie, director of China’s official General Administration of Press and Publications, justified the campaign as essential to “a healthy and harmonious environment for a successful 17th Party Congress,” but the crackdown appears designed to quash coverage of events embarrassing to the Chinese Communist Party, including disasters, corruption, and official malfeasance.
One of the victims of that campaign is freelance writer Lu Gengsong, detained in August and subsequently formally charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” Lu had published reports on foreign websites detailing human rights abuses and corruption, which his police interrogators claimed “attacked the Communist Party.”
The government has shut down an official estimate of more than 18,000 individual blogs and websites since April and closed entire internet data centers, which host thousands of websites. In August, Cai Mingzhao, deputy director of the Information Office at the State Council, defended the closures, noting that “good publicity” was the “primary task” of the country’s internet media ahead of the congress.
The crackdown has also targeted specific individuals. On September 29, Li Heping, a Beijing-based lawyer best known for representing human-rights-related cases, was abducted by plainclothes assailants who beat and tortured him with electric prods before releasing him. Li, who has been under intense police surveillance for the past year, said his assailants repeated an earlier verbal warning issued by Beijing police that he should leave Beijing ahead of the Party Congress.
In a separate incident, the brother and son of Ye Guozhu, jailed in 2004 for four years after leading protests against evictions related to the 2008 Olympic Games, were apparently detained by state security officers on September 29 and September 30, respectively, but there has been no formal notification of what charges they might be facing or even if they are in police custody.
The actions against Li and Ye’s relatives follow the apparent incommunicado detention last month of Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights defender who wrote a letter last month to the US Congress opposing the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing due to China’s human rights conditions. Gao was last seen in the presence of municipal Public Security Officers at his Beijing home on September 22 and has not been seen or heard of since.
“If the Chinese government continues abusing lawyers, jailing dissidents, and harassing petitioners – rather than dealing with their concerns – it will probably still be dealing with similar if not more unrest at the next Party Congress five years from now,” Richardson said. “Sweeping these problems under the rug for every high-profile party event will do nothing to solve them.”