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Opinion: Don't Forget About China's Dissidents

August 8, 2008

By ELLEN BORK
The Wall Street Journal
August 7, 2008; Page A13

In the 1970s, the People's Republic of China held out appeal for
American intellectuals disillusioned with Soviet Communism.
Journalists, academics, artists and religious leaders made the
journey. Their admiring accounts reveal, as Paul Hollander described
in his book "Political Pilgrims," that most of the visitors saw what
they wanted to see, and in any case only as much as their Chinese
hosts allowed.

Visitors to China these days are not looking for a successful
communist model. After all, no less a cold warrior than Ronald Reagan
called China a "so-called communist country." In most foreign policy
circles, dwelling on China's communist character is considered slightly gauche.
[Dont' Forget About China's Dissidents]
David Klein

Indeed, Western newspapers generally do not identify Hu Jintao as the
general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, even though it is
this post and not the state presidency from which he derives his
authority and power. The passing of the mass totalitarian campaigns
of the Mao era, and the economic and minor political reforms of the
late 1970s and '80s under Deng Xiaoping, convinced many observers
that economic growth will take the country inexorably toward a freer
political system.

However, like the "pilgrims" of the earlier era, today's visitors are
not seeing the full picture either. In the late 1990s, when she was
U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright visited a judicial
training center in Beijing. At a photo session, she beamed as she
held up a copy of the China Daily. The headline touted China's
commitment to the rule of law. Buried deep in the text were what the
paper identified as the rule of law's key elements. One of these was
the supremacy of the Communist Party.

Secretary Albright fell into a common trap. The China Daily is the
English language propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party. Its
content is carefully managed and aimed at prominent foreign visitors.
While the photographs and coverage of the recent Sichuan earthquake
gave the impression of a relaxation in press control, it was only
temporary and soon reined in. During the Tibetan protests in March
and April, the carefully modulated language that China's leaders use
on the world stage was abandoned in favor of harsh "Cultural
Revolution" era denunciations of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans.

The PRC's leaders still control what Chinese people read and watch on
television on any topic where they perceive their interests to be at
stake. All publications and broadcast media are licensed by the
government. Journalists are required to undergo Marxist
indoctrination and can be singled out to perform self-criticism.
Unsatisfactory political attitudes or behavior can lead to
prosecution and surveillance. The party's Central Propaganda
Department also dictates content through texted and faxed directives
telling journalists how to handle sensitive issues like the outbreak
of SARS and anniversaries of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The directives and blacklists are kept secret, perhaps to keep their
targets off balance, or to maintain the façade of openness that
Chinese authorities wish to present to the rest of the world. A
journalist, Shi Tao, who relayed the content of such a directive to
an overseas Chinese Web site, is in jail on a 10-year sentence for
leaking such "state secrets."

The Internet -- through which some Chinese citizens can access
overseas Web sites -- has not significantly eroded control of
information. The Chinese government has a formidable firewall to
block sites it doesn't want its citizenry to view. It's manned by
thousands of censors who monitor sites and recommend them for
blocking. Although a persistent citizen can evade the technology that
blocks foreign sites, the authorities compensate by making the system
slow and cumbersome.

Self-censorship and intimidation also play a significant role in
keeping the Internet safe for consumption. Many Internet companies
voluntarily remove content that the authorities consider politically
problematic. American companies like Google, which tailors its search
engine to Chinese demands, and Yahoo, which cooperated in the
investigation of the journalist Shi Tao, also perform this censorship
function. The party may rely heavily on such indirect pressures to
contain the Internet's influence, but it doesn't skimp on policing,
coercion and repression.

Estimates of the number of people employed to monitor the Internet
run into the tens of thousands. According to Reporters Without
Borders, at least 50 Internet dissidents are in jail. Of course, none
of this will be visible to a foreign visitor.

Pollution, skyscrapers and development reflect China's rapid economic
growth, not political change. There have been no significant
political reforms in China since the 1980s. Meanwhile, economic
growth has enabled more intense but sophisticated approach to
political repression.

Since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, anything that suggests a degree of
organization, or coordination across provinces, is stamped out as
quickly as possible and as ruthlessly as necessary. Examples include
the religious organization Falun Gong and the China Democracy Party,
whose members experienced the most brutal treatment a communist-party
system has to dole out, including rape, beatings, shackling and
electric shocks, according to Amnesty International and other human
rights organizations. While China touts its commitment to the rule of
law, lawyers who dare to defend victims of political or religious
persecution are increasingly the targets of repression themselves.

The Olympics and their preparations are not leading to a liberalized
China. In fact, the opposite is true. Dissidents have been
sequestered, detained or sent out of town for the duration of the
games. The construction of Olympic venues has led to the eviction of
more than one million people. Activists who persist in pointing out
the connection between the Olympics and the increase in human rights
abuses -- such as Hu Jia, Ye Guozhu and Yang Chunlin -- have been jailed.

There are hundreds if not thousands of other prisoners visitors to
the Olympics Games should remember. They include veterans of the
China Democracy Party, like Zha Jianguo; petitioners advocate Liu
Jie, imprisoned for gathering thousands of names on an open letter
seeking political reforms; and Internet essayists like Lü Gengsong
who have written about corruption and the CCP. The group China Human
Rights Defenders lists eight people in the Beijing area alone still
imprisoned for participating in the Tiananmen democracy protests of 1989.

And then, of course, there are the dead victims of Tiananmen. Their
exact number is unknown. Despite harassment, threats and frequent
detentions, Ding Zilin, the mother of a teenaged victim, and other
parents have gathered 188 names over the past 19 years. Not
surprisingly, Ms. Ding has been pressured to leave Beijing for the
duration of the Games.

When the Olympics are over and the crowds go home, China will have no
incentive to relax control. Worse, the party's capacity for
surveillance and repression will be enhanced by hosting the Games.

The world isn't just sending athletes to the Olympics, but
surveillance technology that will help the government keep tabs on
its people for years to come. American companies alone have sold
China technology that invisibly copies computer hard drives, reads
encrypted text and performs facial recognition analysis on surveillance video.

No one purports any longer to be a fan of Chinese, or any other brand
of communism. The problem arises when visitors fail to understand
what they are seeing -- and what has been hidden -- and form a
mistaken impression of the kind of government the People's Republic
of China still has.

Ms. Bork works on human rights at Freedom House.
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