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Last Updated: Monday, 7 March 2005, 15:30 GMT
China's intolerance of dissent
As part of the BBC's China Week, Haoyu Zhang of BBC Chinese.com looks at the country's continued intolerance of any form of political dissent.

Ever since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao formally took power more than two years ago, they have called on officials to put people's interests first and help build a civil and harmonious society.
Ding Zilin and her son
Ding Zilin and her son Jiang Jielian, when he was still alive

All this comes against a backdrop of rising social tension, as many sections of Chinese society feel left behind by the economic boom.

Achieving "harmony", however, seems to have meant that any dissenting voices are dealt with most swiftly and more harshly than ever before.

Ding Zilin is a retired university professor in her 70s.

For the past 16 years, she and a few others who lost sons and daughters during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre have been calling on the government to apologise.

But in response, these women, known as the Tiananmen Mothers, have faced imprisonment, house-arrest, phone-tapping and constant surveillance.

Since late February this year, as Beijing prepared for the annual meeting of China's parliament, it was almost impossible to get through by telephone to any of the known dissidents inside China.

The police follow me wherever I go. When I wanted to go to the shops, they even joked about running the errand for me
Zhang Xianling

Their home numbers were either "no longer in service" or answered by a middle-age male voice, who responded: "Sorry, there is no such a person here".

When the BBC finally reached Mrs Ding - at a secret mobile number supplied by another dissident - the conversation lasted only a few minutes.

Mrs Ding first asked whether it was true that the European Union would soon lift its arms embargo on China, imposed in protest at the Tiananmen crackdown.

"France and Germany have always put their business interest first," said Mrs Ding. "I hope that Britain will stand up for principle and I call on Mr Blair not to lift the embargo," she said.

Mrs Ding told the BBC that she had already lost hope in the new generation of leaders in China.

"I can't even go and get groceries without them following me and harassing me; neither Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin treated me as badly as ..."

Then the line went dead.

Zhang Xianling is another Tiananmen Mother. Her only son was killed during the protests. She has also been subjected to numerous arrests and daily harassments.

"The police follow me wherever I go," said Mrs Zhang. "When I wanted to go to the shops, they even joked about running the errand for me."

Mrs Zhang is also losing hope in the new generation of leaders.

A couple of months ago, when some sympathetic people from Hong Kong posted boxes of printed T-shirts to her, she was arrested - just for receiving the T-shirts.

"I guess some of the police officers feel bad about doing the things they do," said Mrs Zhang. "Their excuses are always that they stand to lose their jobs if they don't follow orders."

Mrs Zhang does not subscribe to the theory that increasing economic prosperity in China will result in improved human rights.

She said her group had written so many open letters to both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, asking them to reconsider the government's position on Tiananmen.

There were hopes the new leadership, which was not so closely implicated in what happened, would be more flexible. But the only response so far has been more surveillance and harassment.

Rule of Law?

China's government says it wants to "introduce the rule of law" as part of its drive to create a more harmonious society.

Last week, Guo Guoting, a Shanghai lawyer who became known for defending dissidents and the more vulnerable members of society, had his office ransacked by police. He was accused of unspecified "illegal" dealings and of violating the constitution.

Many in the Chinese legal profession know this fate all too well. Some even joke that there are more lawyers in prison than criminals.
Students carry bullet-wounded man to hospital, 4 June 1989 (photo 64memo.com)
Many argue that freedom in China has not improved since Tiananmen

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng runs his own practice. He told the BBC that he was not surprised by his fellow lawyer's plight.

"Well, he's made a name for himself and thus attracted a lot of attention," said Mr Gao. "Many lawyers are thrown into jail each year in China, because the more attention they attract, the more likely they'd expose the inherent evils in the current legal system," he said.

Mr Gao has himself become well-known for defending the weak. He said he had been questioned more than 20 times by the authorities this year.

Mr Gao believes that ultimately change will have to come from the grassroots.

"Hope lies with the people," he said.

Reviving 'Old' China

Feng Congde, one of the student leaders in 1989 who fled China, now lives in Paris and works as a China expert and a social science researcher. He agrees with Mr Gao's analysis.

Mr Feng said that during his flight to the West, he was only able to evade police capture thanks to help from various underground qigong, or meditation, groups.

"We university students were convinced that the way to change China was to model everything on the West," he said.

He said he only realised after the experience that the real power of change and the real hope for political change lay with reviving the "old" China.

"For thousands of years, these grass-root organisations and underground societies have always served as a counterbalance of power to the state," said Mr Feng.

Mr Feng thinks that as China gains more economic freedom, increasing numbers of the grass-root societies will slowly revive and rehabilitate, and lead to change in China's political system.

These groups, of course, need people to recruit.

But even in Britain, just ask any of the tens of thousands of young Chinese students who flock into the many UK universities each year, the great majority of them either do not care or think that things are fine back home.

Huang Hua, the general secretary of the Chinese Democratic Party in the UK, one of the many overseas Chinese dissident organisations, said he often meets with Britain's Chinese students and finds that they care very little about politics.

But Mr Huang does see hope.

"Occasionally you do run into a few bright young minds," he said. "They quickly realised, after only a few months in Britain, that the root malaise of China lies within the authoritarian system."


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