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Chinese crack down on dissidents

By Rowan Callick, The Australian
December 16, 2008

THE Chinese Government is cracking down on human rights groups and individuals to ensure the economic turmoil inside the country is not matched by political instability.

The last big challenge the ruling Communist Party faced came in 1989 when rampant inflation helped propel a nationwide protest movement that ended in a bloodbath in Tiananmen Square.

The latest spurt of political activism began on Wednesday, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under the aegis of the UN.

Chinese police arrested dozens of people who had gathered outside the country's Foreign Ministry urging action under the declaration on a wide range of claimed abuses, including land stolen with the connivance of local officials, illegal detentions and home demolitions.

The Foreign Ministry is drawing up a draft human rights report for the Government.

But the most ominous challenge, from the Government's perspective, was the launch of the "08 Charter" calling for human rights, democracy and - the crucial line that the signatories dared to cross - an end to the dominance of the Communist Party.

The original draft was signed by 303 people from a cross-section of Chinese intellectual society, many of them nationally prominent, including retired party officials, former newspaper editors, lawyers, academics and artists, as well as some who describe themselves as "peasants" and "workers".

Police took Liu Xiaobo, a former philosophy professor at Beijing Normal University, from his home last week, and his whereabouts remain unknown, even to his wife. Professor Liu, aged 53, was jailed for 20 months in 1989 for supporting the democracy movement, and was sentenced to three years at a re-education camp in 1996 for challenging rule by a single party.

He was one of the drafters of the new charter, which takes its name from Charter 77, a petition written in 1977 in Czechoslovakia by intellectuals and activists, which contributed to the undermining of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe.

Leading European intellectual Vaclav Havel, one of the drafters of Charter 77, became president of the Czech Republic. Last week, he hosted a visit to Prague by the Dalai Lama, another touchstone of Beijing anxiety. The Chinese Government recently cancelled an annual summit with European leaders, just four days before it was due to be held in Lyon - because the Dalai Lama was dueto address the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

A range of prominent European products have since been barred at Chinese ports, including Belgian chocolates.

News of the latest Chinese charter swiftly spread online, before the "net police" clamped down, and 440 more people - from many occupations, and across the country, deepening the Government's anxiety - have since publicly signed it.

The charter urges a new constitution that guarantees human rights, including taxpayer rights, requires public officials to be elected, expands freedom of religion and expression and ends the Communist Party's dominance of the army, the courts and the Government.

It also seeks the abolition of the criminal code that imprisons people for "incitement to subvert state power" - the charge that is looming over Professor Liu.

Others who signed the charter, including constitutional expert Zhang Zuhua and scholars Chen Xi and Shen Youlian, have also been taken in by police for questioning and to be warned, but most have been released within 24 hours.

The charter covers a broad range of topics including tax reform, environmental protection and the need for China - the world's only large country with a unitary political structure - to consider federalism.

It amounts to a form of political manifesto, regarded by Beijing as even more dangerous because its authors extend far beyond the "usual suspects" comprising veteran dissidents.

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