1999 Scores

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


China's leaders marked 50 years of Communist Party rule in October 1999 with massive, tightly controlled festivities in Beijing, while ordinary Chinese contended with rising unemployment, weak economic growth, and continued, rampant corruption and arbitrary rule in a period of wrenching economic and social change. During the year, authorities escalated a crackdown on political dissidents, labor and peasant activists, and religious leaders.

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, following victory over the Nationalist Kuomintang. Mao's death in 1976 largely ended the brutal, mass ideological campaigns that had politicized nearly every aspect of daily life and had resulted in millions of deaths. Deng Xiaoping emerged as paramount leader and, in December 1978, began China's gradual move from central planning to a market economy.

The April 1989 death of Hu Yaobang, who in 1986 had been ousted as CCP secretary general for tolerating student demonstrations, touched off weeks of student-led pro-democracy protests in Beijing and other cities that ended in the bloody army crackdown around Tiananmen Square on June 3-4, 1989. Hardliner Jiang Zemin, the Shanghai mayor and party boss, replaced the relatively moderate Zhao Ziyang as CCP secretary general.

After a period in which hardliners appeared to control policy decisions, in early 1992 Deng signaled support for market reforms by making a highly symbolic visit to two Special Economic Zones on the southern coast. Jiang assumed the presidency in 1993, and since then the CCP has staked its postrevolutionary legitimacy on raising living standards through modest economic reform, while curbing dissent.

Deng remained paramount leader until his death in February 1997. At the CCP's 15th Congress in September 1997, Jiang consolidated his authority by ousting several potential rivals from top posts and forcing several military figures out of politics.

At the 1998 annual session of the rubber-stamp National People's Congress (NPC), Zhu Rongji, the architect of the economic reform process since the mid-1990s, took over as premier from Li Peng. The NPC also confirmed Hu Jintao, the youngest member of the CCP politburo's seven-member standing committee and the presumed heir apparent to Jiang, as politburo president. In December, authorities sentenced three leaders of the fledgling opposition China Democracy Party (CDP) to jail terms of up to 13 years.

In 1999, authorities arrested scores of second-tier organizers of the banned CDP and other dissidents in advance of the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. In April, some 10,000 members of the mystical Falun Gong sect protested outside the leadership compound in Beijing to demand official status for their beliefs in what was the biggest demonstration in the capital since 1989. Following revelations that many party members and senior military officers belonged to the group, authorities banned Falun Gong on July 22 and detained thousands of followers, releasing most shortly afterward. In late December, authorities sentenced four Falun Gong practioners in Dalian city to labor camps after they posted on the Internet details of police mistreatment of them. Some 70 million people are believed to follow Falun Gong.

The crackdown on perceived threats to CCP authority came in the context of continued economic problems. Following several years of rapid economic growth, in 1998 the government began resorting to heavy infrastructure spending to boost economic growth in the face of weak domestic consumption and slowing exports and foreign direct investment. State-owned enterprises (SOE) produce less than half of total goods but employ more than half of urban workers, and their debts account for most of the nonperforming loans in the largely insolvent banking system. Efforts to shut down or privatize most small and medium-size SOEs by the middle of the next decade have led to millions of layoffs and violent worker protests in a country with minimal welfare benefits and limited worker rights.

In recent years, farmers have also staged numerous protests over arbitrary taxes, official corruption, and low grain prices. Meanwhile, government social policies continue to favor urban areas, and economic policies favor the booming coast, contributing to widening income inequalities, limited rural development, and a "floating population" of 80 million to 100 million migrants that has sought work in the cities.

In recent years, authorities have arbitrarily detained thousands of people and committed torture and other abuses in the vast northwestern Xinjiang "Autonomous Region," where 7 million Turkic-speaking Uighurs and other, smaller Muslim groups accuse Beijing of exploiting the region's rich mineral resources, controling religious affairs, and altering the demographic balance by encouraging an influx of Han Chinese who are rewarded with top jobs. While most dissent is peaceful, since 1996 Uighur activists have clashed violently with police on several occasions and are suspected in several bombings and assassinations. In August, Amnesty International said it had recorded 190 executions in Xinjiang since 1997, mostly of Uighurs convicted for "subversion" or "terrorism" in unfair trials.

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 freedom of speech, press, association, and religion. China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998 but has not ratified it, and compliance has been limited.

In practice there is little separation between party and state. The National People's Congress is nominally the highest organ of state authority under the 1982 constitution, but in practice the body has little independent power and has never voted to reject legislation. However, in recent years delegates have registered protest votes over the government's handling of rising crime rates and other issues.

Under the 1987 Village Committees Organic Law, some 60 percent of the country's 928,000 village bodies are chosen through local elections. However, only pre-screened CCP candidates and some independents can compete. Moreover, unelected CCP secretaries have far greater powers than the elected leaders, and key administrative powers are held by county, rather than village, governments. Independents have won seats in many villages, but throughout the country balloting is characterized by irregularities and unfair procedures. The CCP has not indicated that it plans to extend the balloting to the county level or higher.

The CCP controls the judiciary and directs verdicts and sentencing in sensitive cases. Judges are poorly trained and are generally retired military officers selected on the basis of party loyalty. Bribery of judges is rampant, and local governments frequently intervene in ordinary cases. Suspects are routinely tortured to extract confessions.

Nevertheless, in recent years authorities have made some efforts to strengthen the rule of law and make the legal system less arbitrary in nonpolitical cases. Revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) in 1997 granted a greater role to defense lawyers and increased their access to defendants; limited administrative detention to 30 days; ended the presumption of guilt (although it did not establish a presumption of innocence); and barred judges from ordering quick trial and execution for crimes that allegedly "seriously endanger public order." However, these protections are apparently honored mainly in the breach. Moreover, the revisions strengthened the role of party-controlled "adjudicative committees" in handling major cases and introduced new summary trial procedures in certain cases. In March 1999, the judiciary opened many trials to the public, although politically sensitive cases remain closed.

In recent years, ordinary citizens have increasingly sued township governments, employers, state enterprises, and local police in an unprecedented challenge to what had been unquestioned official authority over their lives, in some cases winning out-of-court settlements or outright victories. Plaintiffs are also increasingly winning class-action lawsuits. The courts generally accept only lawsuits that dovetail with central government policies and priorities, such as finding an orderly means to handle labor grievances, or that are useful in curbing arbitrary action by increasingly autonomous local officials. Moreover, judges are often reluctant to rule against local governments, which provide their salary and appointments. Local governments have responded to lawsuits by harassing the plaintiffs, and favorable judgments are hard to enforce.

Despite the CPL revisions mentioned above, authorities can still arbitrarily detain dissidents and ordinary criminals through several extrajudicial administrative procedures, contributing to a vast network of forced labor camps. A system of laogai, or "reform through labor," camps hold prisoners without trial in brutal conditions, many for political or religious views. In September, the New York-based Human Rights in China reported that police detain up to 2 million illegal urban migrants, street children, beggars, and others each year in "custody and repatriation" centers that lack rudimentary sanitation and other basic needs.

The 1997 criminal code revisions also eliminated the category of "counterrevolutionary" crimes, under which courts have imprisoned thousands of dissidents. But the revisions also expanded the category of "endangering state security," itself a sweeping, undefined term that, along with the crime of "leaking state secrets," is applied to a broad range of political and nonpolitical activities. Human Rights Watch/Asia noted the revised code incorporates key elements of the 1993 State Security Law, which can be used to punish Chinese 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).

The government is likely holding several thousand political prisoners, although the exact number is difficult to determine. They include hundreds of Chinese who are imprisoned for their peaceful participation in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. The leadership has thus far rejected calls to reassess the official verdict of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations as a counterrevolutionary rebellion. By early August 1999, courts had sentenced seven members of the CDP to prison terms generally ranging between 8 and 13 years on subversion charges, with some trials lasting just a few hours. Unrelenting police harassment prevents many dissidents from holding jobs or otherwise leading normal lives.

Authorities routinely abuse prisoners and often encourage inmates to beat political prisoners. Nearly 70 crimes are punishable by the death penalty, and in recent years the state has executed numerous people for nonviolent offenses including hooliganism, theft of farm animals or rice, and forging of tax invoices. Authorities have executed others during crackdowns on corruption and drug trafficking, often immediately following summary trials.

Although the media have diversified considerably in recent years in terms of subjects covered, the government continues to maintain tight control over political content. In recent years there has been a proliferation of nonpolitical talk-radio shows and tabloid magazines, and 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. Yet the media never directly criticize the CCP's monopoly on power or top leaders. At least a dozen journalists are in prison over their reporting. In 1998 and 1999, the State Press and Publishing Bureau and the Communist Party's Department of Propaganda warned, suspended, or banned several liberal magazines, newspapers, and book publishers, or purged their staffs.

In recent years, authorities have issued regulations to control Internet access and content for the country's one million users and have closed dozens of Internet websites. In January 1999, a court sentenced an Internet entrepreneur in Shanghai to two years in prison for providing e-mail addresses to a U.S.-based online magazine, the first person in China to be imprisoned on charges of subversion related to Internet use.

Beijing tolerates the existence of several thousand nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that focus on areas the government has neglected and does not consider politically threatening, including the environment and the rights of women and migrant workers. Authorities use a complex process to weed out groups that could potentially oppose the government. State Council Order No. 43 of 1989 banned "identical or similar social organizations . . . within the same administrative area," thereby outlawing independent labor organizations or other NGOs that serve a function ostensibly covered by an existing government-sponsored organization. NGOs must report to specific government departments, and authorities can arbitrarily shut them at any time.

Freedom of assembly is limited. In recent years authorities have tolerated numerous public protests regarding labor, housing, and other ostensibly local issues but have forcibly dispersed others, particularly in the countryside. In August, a Hunan province court imprisoned nine farmers for organizing a January protest against arbitrary local taxation that drew more than 10,000 farmers.

The government tightly controls organized religious practice. Authorities 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. Students at state-approved seminaries must pass exams on political knowledge. Official Catholic churches cannot maintain loyalty to the Vatican.

While many unregistered Protestant churches and openly pro-Vatican Catholic groups are able to function, scores have been raided, closed, or demolished. Officials have detained hundreds of bishops, priests, and ordinary Protestant and Catholic worshippers for months and, in some cases, years. Authorities particularly target churches with unorthodox styles of worship. In Xinjiang, authorities have used the pretext of quelling ethnic separatism to place sharp restrictions on construction of mosques and Islamic religious publishing and education, and have shut down 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. Couples adhering to the policy receive preferential education, food, and medical benefits, while those failing to comply face a loss of jobs and benefits, fines, or even forced abortion and sterilization. Failure to pay the fines sometimes results in seizure of livestock and other goods and destruction of homes. Dissidents in Xinjiang say authorities often force Muslim women to have abortions or to undergo sterilization after their first child.

Women face social and economic discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, and tend to be far likelier to be laid off in state enterprise restructurings. In rural areas there are high incidences of women being abducted or otherwise sold into prostitution or marriage, and high female suicide rates.

All unions must belong to the CCP-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and independent trade unions are illegal. Private factory workers are often paid subminimum wages, are forced to work overtime, have no contracts, and are subject to arbitrary dismissal. Most prisoners are required to work, receiving little if any compensation. Authorities occasionally permit workers to hold strikes against dangerous conditions and low wages, generally in foreign-owned factories.

China's privatization process has been rife with allegations that many companies have been sold cheaply to insiders. In other cases, managers reportedly threatened workers to buy shares or risk losing their jobs. An estimated 25 percent of the economy is now in private hands, which has helped to create a new urban middle class with increasing 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 government has also loosened the system of hakou, or residence permit, to give workers more flexibility in filling jobs in areas of fast economic growth. The massive Three Gorges Dam, which is being built on the Yangtze River, will displace some 1.3 million people by its completion in 2008. The resettlment process has reportedly been plagued by resistance from local residents, poor farming conditions in the resettlement areas, and corruption.

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