In China's cruel game, the dissidents are used as pawns

It's time to stop hearing that our human rights dialogue with China is making important strides
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The Independent Culture
ROLL FORWARD to September 2001, and China is furiously lobbying ahead of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) vote on whether Peking will host the 2008 summer games. Just as in 1993, when Peking narrowly failed to win the year 2000 Olympics, China's hopes are being undermined by its dismal human rights record. So, in a final effort, what does Peking do?

It is time to play the dissident card. Days before the IOC vote, the imprisoned activist Xu Wenli, by then 57, is paroled on "medical" grounds from his 13-year sentence for "subverting state power". Or, if not Mr Xu, then one of the many others who were locked up during the crackdown of late 1998 and early 1999. This week, a computer entrepreneur, Lin Hai, became the latest victim, jailed for two years for providing Internet addresses to a US-based dissident magazine.

China has always used its imprisoned dissidents as pawns. That does not always work, of course. The release of its most famous jailed dissident, Wei Jingsheng, just before the 1993 IOC vote, failed to secure the 2000 games. (Wei was subsequently rearrested.) But whether it is to sweeten the atmosphere before a state visit, or to ease sentiments in Washington ahead of the annual renewal of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status, Peking reckons that it does no harm to release the odd well known dissident or two. In fact, by mid-1998, after the final release and exile of such well known dissidents as Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, China's cupboard of jailed high-profile "names" had begun to look rather bare.

Replenishing its store of bargaining counters, however, is for Peking only a fortuitous by-product of the current crackdown. Peking's self-confessed rationale was given this week by the Chinese Communist Party's top law and order official and politburo member, Luo Gan, who spoke of "threats of possible chaos".

He went on: "The party and state officials at all levels are ordered to exhaust all necessary means to ensure political stability and crush crimes... All channels used by destabilising elements must be eliminated", adding that "political subversives", "religious sects" and economic crimes would all be targeted by Peking.

Consider the backdrop to those remarks, well illustrated by just some of the events that have emerged over the past fortnight. In Daolin township, Hunan province, at least 3,000 angry farmers clashed with police in a demonstration over heavy illegal taxes and duties imposed by corrupt local officials. In Changde city, also in Hunan, hundreds of state textile workers furiously demonstrated about three months' unpaid wages. In Zizhou country, Shaanxi province, more than 12,000 farmers are suing officials who tried to collect illegal taxes. In Tianshui city, Gansu province, two labour rights activists were arrested after workers at the Auto Transport Company protested about unpaid pensions.

The Chinese leadership is certainly worried about the number of angry Chinese who are no longer afraid to make their voices heard. President Jiang Zemin knows that China is at its most unstable for 10 years, despite so many aspects of life being unimaginably better than in the not-so-distant Maoist past.

This incipient instability is badly timed for Peking. This is because 1999 has two high-profile anniversaries: the 10th anniversary of the 4 June Tiananmen Square massacre, which China does not intend to mark, and the 1 October 50th anniversary of the Communist founding of the People's Republic of China, an event planned to put the millennium in the shade. The current crackdown is supposed to ensure that no one spoils that party.

For the whole of this year, the vice will be tightened on perceived undesirable "elements". Aside from locking up dissidents, a much more general clamp- down is under way, extending to what Chinese newspapers can get away with, and attempts to impose stricter controls over Internet use.

What really terrifies China is the economy. After mouthing intentions for years, the government is now finally turning the screws on rampant smuggling, corruption, embezzlement, illicit borrowing by state units, and huge outflows of illegal hard currency capitals. In the hope of preventing an economic slowdown and to create much-needed employment, it claims to be pumping $1.2 trillion (pounds 740bn) into the economy in a three-year infrastructure spending binge.

China knows that it must run to stand still. Unemployment is the biggest challenge: attempts to sort out the loss-making state industries are throwing millions on the scrap-heap, and last weekend the government admitted that some 16 million people will be looking for jobs this year that do not exist.

Meanwhile, the main state banks may well be technically insolvent, because too much money has already been poured into the black hole of the state sector.

And years of unapproved foreign borrowing by far-flung provincial governments is starting to unravel, most dramatically with the recent bankruptcy of the Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corporation, which amassed debts of $4.35bn (pounds 2.7bn) against assets of $2.58bn (pounds 1.6bn).

In such a situation there is no breathing-space for dissidents. Nor is there any perception by the Peking leadership that open political debate and, particularly, an open press might have helped prevent many of today's problems. Instead, the rounding up and jailing of dissidents, especially those, like Mr Xu, involved in the nascent China Democracy Party, illustrates Peking's total intolerance of opposition to Communist Party rule.

Those much-touted human rights "dialogues" - with the US, the European Union, Britain and the United Nations, count for nothing when it comes to China's treatment of its few dissidents. It is time to stop hearing from British officials, as we did repeatedly last year, about how our human rights dialogue with China is making important strides. Many aspects of life in China - such as the right to choose one's employment and freedom to travel - are moving in the right direction, but freedom for those outside the system to air their political views is not one of them.

In this year of the chill, the fact is that the best we in Britain can hope for is that President Jiang decides to release an activist or two to lighten the atmosphere before he flies to London in the autumn to meet the Queen.