China is nowhere near the democracy envisioned by protesters in 1989

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on June 9, 2016

HONG KONG/BEIJING In the 27 years since its violent suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Tiananmen Square, China has come a long way in many respects — but not in terms of the democracy and human rights that students and other citizens demanded in 1989. Unlike the nation’s economic growth and the gain in political clout that more or less resulted from it, progress on even the most basic rights for citizens has stalled.

When tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong flocked to Victoria Park and a few other venues on June 4 to commemorate the deaths of unarmed civilians in 1989, Tiananmen Square was guarded by police armed with rifles, and armored vehicles and fire engines were mobilized. Entrances to the Muxidi subway station, where many young lives were lost 27 years ago, were closed off. Wanan Cemetery on the outskirts of Beijing, where some victims were laid to rest, was closed to the general public.

According to the Network of  Chinese Human Rights Defenders , at least 50 people in China were either arrested, disappeared, put under house arrest or subjected to other forms of virtual detention on June 4.

Zhang Baocheng was arrested for privately commemorating the Tiananmen incident at his home in Beijing on May 28 with his friends, including Ma Xinli, Zhao Changqing, Xu Caihong and Li Meiqing. They were all charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — an omnipotent weapon widely used by the authorities — and remained in a Beijing prison as of June 4.

Fu Hailu, in the inland city of Chengdu, was arrested on May 29 for producing bottles of hard liquor that he named “Eight liquor six four.” The Chinese word for “liquor” is pronounced the same way as “nine,” making the name sound like “Eight nine six four,” a reference to June 4, 1989. Fu was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” Ma Qing, a poet who took part in promoting the liquor, was also placed in custody.

The last known prisoner serving a sentence related to the 1989 crackdown in Beijing, Miao Deshun, is due to be released in October, according to the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization. However, a number of others are being locked up again. At least 12 are behind bars, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who began serving an 11-year sentence in 2009. Tang Jingling, a rights lawyer and advocate of civil disobedience, was sentenced to a five-year prison term last January for “inciting subversion of state power.” He did not appeal, saying he sees no justice in the Chinese judiciary. “Inside the grand edifice of the court, we can see stately and ornate furnishings and decorations, and we can see the government employees in dignified attire,” he said in a statement. “But we cannot see the law, and we can definitely not see justice.”

THOUSANDS DETAINED The long arm of Chinese authority reaches far beyond those who commemorate or have participated in June 4 events. The Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders has documented the detention of more than 2,000 people over the past three years “simply for peacefully promoting social and economic rights,” said Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the organization.

For instance, Meng Han was arrested in January for “gathering crowds to disrupt social order.” The former security guard at a Guangzhou hospital has been active in advocating for benefits for workers.

Jia Lingmin from Zhengzhou began serving a four-year sentence last year. After her house was demolished by force, the middle school teacher became an advocate for housing rights, but this was judged to be “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Her jail term was set after an appeal was heard behind closed doors without Jia herself in attendance.

Even China’s public interest litigation system, which allows nongovernmental organizations to lodge formal complaints related to issues such as the environment, is hardly making progress. According to the People’s Daily, only about 50 cases have reached the court over the past 18 months, and more than half of them came from a single organization, the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation.

“It is too few,” said Wang Canfa, a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, given that more than 1 million environmental disputes occur annually in the country.

The biggest reason is the set of strict requirements for groups seeking to file a lawsuit. They must have been active for at least five years, without any record of violating the law. “The government has made sure that groups that might revolt against the authorities are not qualified,” a Japanese expert said. Only nine groups have filed public interest litigation so far.

Another reason is the reluctance on the part of local courts, which are controlled by the Communist Party, to accept litigation over environmental destruction in their own jurisdictions. It is not unusual in China for local public security authorities to use force to bring things under control when citizens protests against the local government and companies over environmental issues.

“We are no closer to the kind of tolerance for peaceful, free expression and political participation [in China] that people are asking for,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. While China has seen phenomenal economic growth and enhanced international status as a major aid provider, basic political freedoms and human rights are conspicuously absent. “Here is why Tiananmen is so important,” Richardson said.

COMBATIVE LEADERS Meanwhile, China’s leadership is becoming increasingly combative on human rights issues. During a news conference in Ottawa on June 1, Foreign Minister Wang Yi became visibly irritated over a Canadian journalist’s question about human rights, criticizing the journalist as “full of prejudice against China” and calling the question “totally unacceptable.”

The question was actually directed at Wang’s Canadian counterpart, Stephane Dion, pointing to specific cases like the sudden disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers and the detention of a Canadian citizen in northern China. Yet somehow, Wang took over and uttered the old cliche of how China’s regime has lifted 600 million people out of poverty, something that could not have been possible “without protecting human rights.”

Wang concluded by telling the journalist that such questions are “irresponsible” and that he would reject them as “groundless and unwarranted accusations.”

Richardson, of Human Rights Watch, said Wang’s response “betrays the attitude of the leadership toward rights worldwide.” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on June 3 that it is the media’s job to “ask tough questions,” but the incident shows how Chinese norms are spilling over beyond its borders. Former Canadian cabinet minister Tony Clement told CBC News that “If we go to Beijing, as ministers or MPs, we were always told there are certain historical and cultural aspects of the Chinese that we have to be deferential to, and respectful of — and then he (Wang) comes here and disrespects our values.”

Toru Kurata, an associate professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo who specializes in Chinese and Hong Kong politics, speculates there may be something deeper going on. Mindful that footage of the official news conference in Canada was certain to reach Chinese internet audiences one way or the other, “Wang may have acted tough for the domestic audience,” Kurata said.

Metrics on freedom indicate stagnation and regression for China at a time when the sheer size of its gross domestic product is second only to the U.S. In per capita terms, it is just short of $8,000 — much higher than the level of Taiwan when it lifted its martial law in 1987, or South Korea when it became a democracy in the run-up to the 1988 Olympics. Of course, a simple comparison of this sort may not work, but China is ranked 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House ranks it “Not Free,” with a score just marginally better than the worst in its 2016 rankings.

“China simply cannot become a predictable, stable international player … until it becomes a rights-respecting state,” Richardson stressed.

Shuhei Yamada, head of Nikkei’s China Headquarters, contributed to this report.

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