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CHINA: Social Stability Puts Squeeze on the Rule of Law

Analysis by Michael Standaert

HONG KONG, Apr 11 2011 (IPS) - There is no “Jasmine Revolution” in China, but the Chinese government might be creating the seeds for one through its elevation of social stability above the rule of law, some experts say.

Over the last two months, authorities have taken advantage of anonymous calls for revolution first posted on overseas Chinese websites to launch an intense crackdown that has led to harsh sentences, detentions, disappearances and general harassment of lawyers, activists and writers with liberal voices that the government fears could spark social instability.

On Apr. 3 well-known artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained at the Beijing International Airport and has not been heard from since, according to his associates – leaving many analysts to speculate that his detention is a signal to those in Chinese society who may have felt “untouchable” during the recent crackdown, that they should not step out of line.

“If the authorities are even willing to come after someone like Ai Weiwei, they’ll show no reluctance to come after someone with less of a profile,” said Joshua Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human rights organisation based in Hong Kong. “The goal seems to be to remove liberal voices and redraw the boundaries of what kinds of criticism will be acceptable. Because preserving stability is the priority, any possible impact on China’s image is secondary.”

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hong Lei, responding to a question about the arrest of Ai, said he was arrested “as a suspect for economic crimes” and said the international community had no right to interfere with the country’s domestic legal issues.

Responding to the annual U.S. report on human rights around the world issued Friday, which singled out China in particular for criticism, Hong said the U.S. should “stop acting as a preacher of human rights and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs”. So far these have been the only official responses to the recent crackdown, other than a smattering of editorials.

According to the Hong Kong-based organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), 30 people have been criminally detained and another 30 have disappeared, during the recent crackdown.

In the harshest sentence yet, democracy activist Liu Xianbin, was given 10- years in prison on Mar. 25 for “inciting subversion of state power” – similar sentences could await others who have been arrested, CHRD says.

Stability vs. Instability, Not a Zero Sum Game

According to Rosenzweig, many, if not most, Chinese citizens are satisfied with the economic progress of the country “and expect the good times to continue”.

“They may be dissatisfied with many government policies, specific officials, or certain ways in which government operates, but they believe – in part because they’ve been told this over and over – that the alternatives would be much, much worse.”

Calls for any sort of revolution on the scale of the recent events sweeping and reshaping the Middle East and North Africa have remained virtual and widely unknown. This is largely due to government media control, but also because an increasingly prosperous middle class does not make the country ripe for revolt.

Zheng Jianwei, a lawyer from Chongqing municipality who focuses on labour and property rights cases, told an audience at Hong Kong University over the weekend that courts, police and the judiciary in general have “turned away from the people” in the name of maintaining social stability. China’s government may be debasing the legal system in such a way that people are forced to seek other outlets to vent frustrations they cannot satisfy in the country’s courts of law – thus leading to more instability.

Zheng said that China’s legal framework is in place to protect human rights, property rights and civil rights, but that if anything political or possibly “sensitive” or critical of the government the surfaces in court “there will always be a problem”.

Beijing-based human rights lawyer Wu Hongwei said, “sometimes cases are simply dismissed” if the government is involved.

Both Zheng and Wu listed a myriad of problems that surface in civil, administrative and criminal cases in China involving “sensitive” issues related to property, religious practice, labour laws, and general human rights cases.

If sensitive cases arise, the lawyers say they are often not allowed to meet clients, clients are not served with the proper paperwork, clients are sometimes given verbal notices to report to labour camps, clients send their documents in by mail and these are misplaced or lost, or judges are pressured to protect local businesses and told how to rule by local officials.

Often evidence is collected illegally or selectively, authorities pressure clients to fire their lawyers, clients are forced to drop charges if government officials are involved, people can’t afford good lawyers, police statements are tampered with by judges, and judges sometimes dismiss cases if they are unhappy with what the outcome will be, they say.

“The major problem is about the enforcement of laws,” Zheng said. “If our rights are protected under the law, it is not because of loopholes in the laws, but because of enforcement.”

There are currently “no effective ways to seek redress” for many people, Wu said, especially in cases involving sensitive issues like labour rights, land requisition, or religious beliefs.

“Currently many lawyers are not favoured by the government,” Zheng said. For the past five years, he said, “I really feel there are risks with the legal professions. There are a lot of struggles with political or career risks.”

Because of an inability to express themselves in courts of law in China, many lawyers have resorted to the Internet to voice their concerns, Zheng said. But even if they stick to facts and discuss issues in a neutral way, they are censored or restrained by authorities.

“Some lawyers have to resort to this to get any problem resolved because the system has lost its effect, and they cannot express themselves through the legal process,” Zheng said. “This is a very significant trend now in China.”

Wu said: “How can we protect people’s rights when our own rights as lawyers are violated all the time?”

But both Zheng and Wu are able to practice within the system as it is because they know the boundaries within which they can operate.

“I haven’t tried to push the limits,” Zheng said. “That’s why I’m here today.”

Hostile Foreign Forces

Because information on these actions by the government is suppressed in China and domestic media is not allowed to report on it, very few Chinese realise the crackdown is occurring. This leads to a situation where only foreign media are reporting on the situation, and one that government can use to play on nationalistic impulses.

“As long as enough people identify their interests with maintaining the status quo, the government can count on support for its crackdown,” Rosenzweig said. “Especially under conditions where information about arrests is limited.”

Poon Sin To, a political commentator in Hong Kong, said that “Beijing wants to kill anything in the seed sowing phase so it doesn’t grow” – referring to the anonymous calls for a “Jasmine Revolution”.

“They are very sensitive to foreign involvement because of historical reasons,” Poon said. “There is very little room for the survival of objecting voices.”

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