Roll up for ritual abuse of rights: Chinese province makes a horror show of drive against crime

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ON A street corner in the centre of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, China's most populous province, vendors grill kebabs, buskers sing - and the local government boasts of its success in fighting crime.

Scores of people have been gathering around the glass- fronted cabinets under a huge billboard for luxury villas and a sign reading, 'Let the world get to know Chengdu'. The cabinets exhibit photographs of criminals and the punishments they have undergone.

Two pictures are particularly disturbing. In one, a score of men squat with signs around their necks, bearing their names and alleged crimes. In the other, a line of convicted criminals, each flanked by a uniformed policeman, stands in the huge Chengdu sports stadium. They have just been sentenced to death before thousands of spectators. The photograph was taken on 10 September. The prisoners were almost certainly shot later that day.

Economic reform in China has created a widening wealth gap, a mobile, often poverty- stricken rural population, and a jump in crime and corruption. And as crime rises, so does use of the death penalty, according to Amnesty International.

Public exhibition and punishment of criminals is nothing new in China. But at a time when Sichuan is striving to attract Western investment, it is surprising to find provincial authorities flaunting pictures they would prefer to hide from foreigners. The photographs are for local consumption, partly as a deterrent, but also because most Chinese approve of such campaigns. 'Our way works better than those of other countries,' said one man.

Despite the meeting in Seattle this weekend between presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton, human rights remain the biggest stumbling block to better Sino-American relations. The rights debate focuses mostly on a large number of high- profile, political and religious detainees: Asia Watch, the New York-based human rights group, has just published a damning report on nearly 240 people detained or tried in China this year. Last week, two people who published a 'Peace Charter' were held in Peking.

But Chinese human rights abuses are also rife at a more mundane level. During anti- crime drives, such as the one in Chengdu, summary prosecution, imprisonment without trial and an absence of defence lawyers are the norm. About 50 crimes carry the death penalty.

The campaigns are a constant source of concern to human rights groups. Robin Munro, at Asia Watch in Hong Kong, says: 'Whenever they have one, the number of executions increases, and the trial standards plummet. The official party policy is, 'Try them quickly, and punish them severely'. The already truncated trial procedures are cut to a minimum. The defendant's rights are reduced to virtually nothing. The likelihood of wrongful execution soars.' He might have added that the appeal process is virtually non-existent.

Death penalty figures are kept secret. Amnesty attempts to collate the Chinese press reports of executions; its figures are likely to be an underestimate, but they give a sense of the trend. In 1990, 980 death sentences were recorded; in 1991, 1,650; in 1992, 1,890. And in the first five months of this year, 300 executions - not just sentences - were carried out.

A quick scan of newspaper cuttings reveals reports of 169 executions in September. Earlier this month, for instance, the Hubei Daily reported that a few days previously 60 people had been executed in the province, after being sentenced at public meetings in 11 cities for murder, 'trading in people' (slave-trading), rape, theft of electrical equipment, destruction of farm produce and train robbery; and several show trials of corrupt cadres and financial officials had been held.

The number of executions for economic rather than violent crime is also up. The president of the Supreme People's Court, Ren Jianxin, is reported to have told the local courts earlier this year: 'For those people of extremely bad nature that must be killed, we must steadfastly sentence them to death in accordance with the law, and must never have a soft hand.'

According to the placards in the glass-fronted cabinets, the Chengdu campaign began 'with nearly 60,000 policemen and the masses uniting to take action', and about 2,000 alleged serious criminals were caught. Some photographs showed guns, weapons, drugs, pornographic videos and ill- gotten money collected in various hauls; others showed four rapists with their heads bowed, bicycle thieves, alleged prostitutes and a gambling table.

China's provincial media faithfully record gruesome crimes. A Kunming truck driver hit two students, promised to take them to hospital, but dumped one and buried the other alive; a Jiangxi employee was raped and burnt by her factory manager while police refused to help; a Henan farm wife forced an 11-year-old boy to drink poison for stealing a few eggs. Gangs storming through trains, robbing and raping, is a common theme. Vice-related crime is also surging: this month Guangdong province reported that police had closed 2,500 brothels.

Throughout the week I was in Chengdu, the information cabinets seemed always to have an audience of several citizens (far more than were bothering with the photographs at the other end of the row, showing pictures of a local beauty school). The viewers seemed to be fascinated and approving.

The 10 September sentencing attracted the largest public audience in the city for years. 'Anyone can go,' said one man who attended. 'And you don't need tickets.'

(Photograph omitted)