Tuesday, August 30, 2005

turning back the clock in China

According to the NY Times:

Chinese police raided the office of a American-financed human rights group shortly before the arrival of the United Nations human rights chief today, as authorities sought to keep a tight lid on dissent during the sensitive visit.

Police searched the offices and copied computer files at the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a leading legal and human rights advisory group, employees and visitors to the offices said. The group's director, Hou Wenzhuo, said that as many as 10 plainclothes and uniformed police came to her home as well, but did not arrest her.

The raid came shortly before Louise Arbour, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, arrived in Beijing to discuss China's rights record with senior Communist Party officials.

Ms. Hou said she had hoped to meet with Ms. Arbour to present evidence she has collected about human rights abuses. Her group has documented what she described as systematic suppression of people who complain about problems like land confiscations and police torture.

One might think that the Chinese government fundamentally misunderstands the public relations dynamic surrounding human rights and foreign opinion—it is cracking down on human rights groups just as they will have maximum international exposure in the wake of a visit from the top UN human rights official. However, the government has not shown particular concern for foreign opinion in the past, and may be banking on relative silence from Western governments distracted by more pressing concerns of Islamic terrorism.

Also, the government's greatest concerns may be with the domestic impact of a visit from the UN high commissioner for human rights. Such a visit, even if scripted and sculpted by the government-controlled media to have minimal direct public effect, could galvanize the human rights/reform/intellectual community. Transnational linkages between Chinese activists and a broader human rights community have already caused trouble for the government:
Ms. Hou, 35, founded the group after studying human rights law at Oxford University and Harvard Law School. It is funded primarily by the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington.

The government's fear is that the nascent human rights community will tap into popular discontent of millions of Chinese left behind by the country's stellar economic growth.
[Ms. Hou's] organization came under heavy pressure this month after it advised farmers in Guangdong Province in a land dispute. The farmers have sustained a pointed and sometimes violent uprising against local leaders, and Ms. Hou was briefly detained by police there before being told to return to Beijing.

"The space for doing this kind of work is shrinking," she said. "The pressure is already much greater than it was a couple of years ago."
. . .

Some legal experts have argued that China has begun to take small but promising steps toward respecting individual rights, partly as a way of improving its image before it hosts the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

But a rash of social unrest around the country in recent years - China experienced at least 74,000 protest incidents in 2004, according to the police - has prompted authorities to sharply curtail grassroots activists groups and harass or arrest rights workers.

The Economist magazine ran a pair of stories last week suggesting that the government, under the increasingly authoritarian Hu Jintao, is tightening control over civil society (what there is of it in China). First, the magazine argues that Mr. Hu is behind recent moves to combat economic and political liberalism.
Given the increasingly conspicuous inequalities emerging in China as a result of the country's embrace of capitalism, it suits Mr Hu to appear to pour cold water on the idea of laisser-faire economics, blamed for a growing gap between rich and poor, between regions and between urban and rural areas. In the past couple of years there has been an upsurge in the number of protests triggered by these disparities, as well as by rampant corruption. Mr Hu is trying to strengthen the party's legitimacy by stressing its sympathy for the disadvantaged.

Second, the government has reversed a two-year trend toward a more open media.
[T]he comprehensive nature of this about-face on media deregulation points to hardline convictions at the top. President Hu Jintao seems determined to avoid even a hint of glasnost, which he is said to blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By combining steady economic results with tight control over civil society, the government has shown with consistent deftness that it can resist external and internal pressures to open up. However, it plays a dangerous, potentially unsustainable game when it plays the growing middle class against the disenchanted underclass.

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