1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.5
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 7

Ratings Change

China's civil liberties rating changed from 7 to 6 due to a change in Freedom House methodology to reflect an easing in state intrusion into the personal lives of its citizens.


In 1998, new Chinese premier Zhu Rongji initiated potentially significant economic reforms, while authorities continued to crush political dissent and flout international human rights standards. Labor unrest over rising joblessness in a country with negligible unemployment benefits and nonexistent worker's rights continued to be one of the regime's key concerns. Zhu had to modify plans to restructure China's crumbling state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the face of slowing economic growth and spreading worker's protests.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949 following victory over the Nationalist Kuomintang. Mao's death in 1976 largely ended the brutal, mass ideological campaigns that had characterized his rule and resulted in millions of deaths. Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader and, in 1978, began market reforms that included ending collectivized agriculture. The army's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square in 1989 signaled the government's wholesale rejection of political reform. Deng selected hardliner Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai mayor and party boss, to replace the relatively moderate Zhao Ziyang as CCP secretary general.

In 1992, Deng, the nation's paramount leader even though he no longer held formal office, touched off an economic boom by making a highly symbolic visit to two special economic zones on the southern coast. In 1993, Jiang assumed the presidency. Since then, the CCP has attempted to maintain its monopoly on power by improving living standards through economic reform, while stifling dissent. By 1997, Jiang had consolidated his power to the extent that Deng's death, once seen as a possible prelude to upheaval in this fractious country, passed unremarkably. At the CCP's quinquennial party congress in 1997, Jiang ousted several potential rivals from top posts and pushed several military figures out of politics.

As in past years, the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC) in 1998 served mainly to approve the CCP leadership's closed door decisions. With hardliner Li Peng having served the two terms as premier permitted under the constitution, the NPC approved conservative technocrat Zhu Rongji, 69, as premier. Jiang began a second term as state president, and Hu Jintao, at age 55, became the youngest member of the politburo's seven-member standing committee. Zhu's reforms included closing thousands of unprofitable SOEs, cleaning up the technically insolvent banking system, slashing the number of government agencies from 40 to 29, separating the regulatory role of ministries from their business interests, abolishing state-subsidized housing, and encouraging home ownership. The restructuring was predicated on continued strong economic growth that would create jobs for newly unemployed state workers. By the autumn, Zhu was forced to scale back his plans, as slowing domestic demand made it less likely that China would reach the 8.2 percent annual growth that it averaged from 1978 to 1996.

In November, authorities cracked down on the fledgling China Democracy Party, which dissidents launched in the aftermath of United States President Bill Clinton's trip to China in June. In December, courts sentenced the group's three most influential leaders to prison terms of 11 years or more.

In 1998, tensions continued in the vast northwestern Xinjiang "Autonomous Region." The seven-million strong, Turkic-speaking Uighurs and other smaller Muslim groups accuse Beijing of exploiting the region's rich mineral resources, controlling religious affairs, cracking down harshly on separatist movements, and altering the demographic balance by encouraging an influx of Han Chinese.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Chinese citizens lack the democratic means to change their government. The CCP holds absolute power, has imprisoned nearly all active dissidents, uses the judiciary as a tool of state control, and severely restricts freedoms of speech, press, association, and religion. In practice there is little separation between party and state. The NPC, constitutionally the highest organ of state authority, has little independent power and has never rejected legislation. Recently, however, delegates have registered protest votes over the government's handling of corruption, rising crime rates, and other issues.

Under the 1987 Village Committees Organic Law, approximately 60 percent of the country's 928,000 village bodies are chosen through local elections. Campaigns generally focus on local corruption and economic matters, but only prescreened CCP and some independent candidates can compete. In many villages, independents have won seats. However, throughout the country balloting is characterized by irregularities and unfair procedures. Moreover, unelected CCP village secretaries and county authorities hold real power.

The CCP controls the judiciary. Corruption is rampant, and local governments intervene in cases. Judges are poorly trained and are generally retired military officers selected on the basis of party loyalty. Suspects are routinely tortured to extract confessions. Judges are often reluctant to handle class action suits or rule against local governments, which provide their salary and appointments. Some local governments have responded to lawsuits by harassing the plaintiffs. Favorable judgments are hard to enforce.

Authorities can arbitrarily detain dissidents and ordinary criminals through several extrajudicial administrative procedures, thereby contributing to a vast network of forced labor camps. Activist Harry Wu has identified 1,100 laogai, or "reform through labor," camps holding six to eight million prisoners without trial under brutal conditions. Abuse of prisoners, particularly ordinary workers, is routine and widespread, and authorities often encourage inmates to beat political prisoners. There are persistent reports of authorities selling organs of executed prisoners for transplant purposes. Nearly 70 crimes are punishable by the death penalty, and, in recent years, many people have been executed during crackdowns on corruption and drug trafficking or for nonviolent offenses such as theft of farm animals, often immediately following summary trials.

The government admits that it is holding approximately 2,000 people for political crimes, although the actual figure is probably higher. In 1997, authorities eliminated the category of "counterrevolutionary" crimes, under which courts have imprisoned thousands of dissidents, as part of revisions to the criminal code. The revised code incorporates key elements of the 1993 State Security Law, which authorizes punishment of groups and individuals for working with foreign organizations or individuals, expands the criminal concept of "state secrets," and creates a separate article aimed at pro-independence and autonomy movements in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet. (A separate report on Tibet appears in the Related Territories section.) In 1998, authorities continued to arrest dissidents for contacting foreign human rights groups and reporters, publicizing incidents of labor unrest, and other nonviolent acts. Unrelenting police harassment prevents many dissidents from holding jobs or otherwise leading normal lives. In April, authorities allowed Wang Dan, one of China's few prominent political prisoners, to go into exile in the United States.

The media never directly criticize the CCP's monopoly on power or top leaders. At least a dozen journalists are in prison, some merely for meeting with Western counterparts. Since 1996, Jiang has tightened control over the media and the arts. The government has introduced regulations to control Internet access and content for the country's one million users, closed dozens of Internet web sites, and placed small newspapers run by private organizations under CCP control. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of nonpolitical talk radio shows and tabloid magazines. The market-driven press is allowed to report on inefficient government agencies, environmental damages, official corruption, and other issues that dovetail with Beijing's interests. The government has tolerated the existence of several thousand nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on areas that the government does not consider to be politically threatening, including the environment and the rights of women and migrant workers. Authorities use a complex process to weed out any groups that could potentially oppose the government. Independent labor organizations or other NGOs cannot serve a function ostensibly served by an existing government-sponsored organization. Each NGO must report to a specific government department and must receive official approval to receive foreign funding.

Freedom of assembly is limited. In recent years, authorities have tolerated some public protests on labor, housing, and local government issues, while forcibly ending others. The government tightly controls organized religious practice. Officials pressure Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to register with either the official Catholic Patriotic Association or its Protestant counterpart. In return for an easing of harassment, churches must accept Beijing's power to appoint clergy; monitor religious membership, funding and activities; and regulate the publication and distribution of religious books and other materials. Official Roman Catholic churches cannot maintain loyalty to the Vatican. While many unregistered Protestant churches and openly pro-Vatican Roman Catholic groups are able to function, scores of churches have been raided, closed, or demolished. Hundreds of bishops, priests, and ordinary worshippers have been detained for months or years. In Xinjiang, authorities have used the pretext of quelling ethnic separatism to place sharp restrictions on the construction of mosques and Islamic religious publishing and education, and have closed dozens of mosques and Koranic schools. Only five religions are officially recognized in China, with all others being prima facie illegal.

China's harsh family planning policy limits urban couples to one child, while in rural areas parents of a girl can petition authorities for permission to have a son. Some local officials zealously enforce the policy through sanctions and even forced abortion and sterilization. Couples adhering to the policy receive preferential education, food, and medical benefits, while those failing to comply face a loss of benefits and fines. Failure to pay the fines sometimes results in seizure of livestock and other goods and destruction of homes. Dissidents in Xinjiang report that authorities often force Muslim women to have abortions and sterilizations after their first child. Women face social and economic discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. In rural areas, there are high incidences of women being abducted or otherwise sold into prostitution or marriage.

Independent trade unions are illegal. All unions must belong to the CCP-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Strikes are occasionally permitted in foreign-owned factories to protest dangerous conditions and low wages. In March, the U.S.-based National Labor Committee accused American clothing manufacturers of avoiding direct responsibility for labor rights by subcontracting production to non-American-owned factories in China where workers receive low pay, are forced to work overtime, have no contracts, and are subject to arbitrary dismissal. Most prisoners are required to work and receive little if any compensation.

Urban middle class Chinese enjoy increased freedom to work, travel, enter into relationships, and buy homes as they choose. The successes of both the Special Economic Zones in the south and the small-scale township and village enterprises in the countryside have also helped remove tens of millions of rural Chinese from dependence on the danwei, or state work unit. However for many urban dwellers the danwei controls everything from the right to change residence to permission to have a child. The system of hakou, or residence permit, has also been loosened to give workers more flexibility in filling jobs in areas of fast economic growth.

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