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A new tone on rights in China?

IN THE PAST week, China has released a Tibetan nun who had been imprisoned for 15 years, reduced the sentence of a Muslim business woman activist, and exiled to the United States Wang Youcai, one of the founders of the China Democracy Party, the first opposition party since China's 1949 revolution. He was released five years short of his 11-year sentence.

What is the significance of these developments? Do they signify that China's new generation of leaders, which came to power in 2003, is relaxing control over political dissent and is willing to allow more freedom of expression and association?


The release of Wang Youcai is significant because he and his associates directly challenged China's one-party Leninist state when they tried to establish an opposition party in 1998. Moreover, they were not like other political dissidents who discussed sensitive political issues or wrote petitions demanding political reforms. Instead, they took concrete actions to make freedom of speech and association a reality by establishing an opposition party. Furthermore, the leaders of the China Democracy Party were not only public intellectuals; they were political activists who had been imprisoned for their participation in the Democracy Wall movement (1978-79), which in the aftermath of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) demanded political reforms, and in the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations in Beijing, which called for democracy as well as an end to corruption and inflation.

Wang had been a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations while he was a graduate student in physics at Peking University. For this he was put on the list of 21 "most wanted" student leaders and sentenced to four years in prison. Due to pressure from the United States and China's desire to win the Olympics in the year 2000, Wang was freed in 1991. He returned to his home town of Hangzhou, where he resumed political activities, while supporting himself with odd jobs made possible by China's move to the market.

Wang began the Chinese Democracy Party by registering it as a local NGO in Hangzhou. NGOs were new phenomenon in the post-Mao era, but unlike in the West, they had to be registered under the auspices of a state organization. Even though Wang and his colleagues did not have state sponsorship, their early attempts to register local branches of the China Democracy Party as NGOs in major cities and provinces initially met with little opposition.

The timing of their efforts reflected another change in China. In the belief that the Chinese government would be less prone to crack down on independent political activities in order to avoid embarrassment and censure from the international community at the time of foreign visits, Wang registered the first local branch of the China Democracy Party on the eve of President Bill Clinton's visit to China in mid June 1998. His associates took similar actions in other Chinese cities during subsequent visits of a series of Western dignitaries. Whereas under the rule of Mao Zedong (1949-76), the Chinese government did not care about its image in the outside world, Mao's successors, beginning in 1978, wanted China to be accepted as a responsible member of the international community.

The strategy of the China Democracy party activists was successful until the visits of foreign dignitaries ended in late 1998, whereupon virtually all the leaders of the fledgling party were arrested, thus ending their attempt to build a multiparty system. Nevertheless, their activities over the course of the summer and fall of 1998 were unprecedented in the People's Republic.

Wang's case demonstrates that although China's present leaders do care about China's international image, they care even more about maintaining Communist Party leadership. The result has been blatantly contradictory policies. At the very time that China signed the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October 1998, it was jailing members of the China Democracy Party. Similarly, now in response to pressure from the United States as well as an effort to deflect China's censure for human rights violations at the forthcoming meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights, China has released a leader of the China Democracy Party and others. But this time Wang is being sent into exile to ensure that he will no longer be directly involved in Chinese politics.

In some respects, China's new generation of leaders has moved in a different direction from their post-Mao predecessors. They have shown more concern to help China's underclasses -- workers in state industries, farmers in the inner provinces, and migrant workers -- hurt by the economic reforms. Reportedly, China's constitution at the current session of the National People's Congress will be amended to include a clause recognizing human rights. Yet, China's present leaders have continued their predecessors' repression of those advocating democratic reforms. While they release some political prisoners, they arrest others.

Nevertheless, the pending constitutional amendment means that others seeking to assert their rights can refer to the constitution as the basis for their actions and that efforts for political reform from below will continue.

Merle Goldman is professor of history emerita of Boston University and author of a forthcoming book, "From Comrade to Citizen: the Struggle for Political Rights in China."

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