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China's disdain for human rights

Friday, July 27, 2001

How convenient. China waited until the International Olympic Committee awarded Beijing the 2008 Games. Then it convicted two Chinese scholars of spying for Taiwan and sentenced them to 10 years in prison.

Secret evidence. One-day, sham trials. Everything closed to the press, U.S. officials and the rest of the world.

Then, Thursday, just ahead of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to China, the government granted the prisoners medical paroles.

What to make of it all? The more China changes, the more it stays the same.

The Chinese leaders showed their customary contempt for human rights, then tried to put a bright light on all of it for the rest of the world.

Heirs to one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the last century, Communist China's rulers proved again that their open-door policies of economic reform won't transform overnight into political enlightenment.

That will be a long, slow process. It is encouraging, at least, that Beijing cared enough about appearances--the Olympics, the Powell visit--to bow a little to diplomatic pressure.

Two days after their trials, China expelled one of the two convicted Chinese citizens, who are legal U.S. residents. Gao Zhan, who teaches sociology at the American University in Washington, arrived in Detroit on Thursday and was greeted by her husband, Donghua Xue. The couple and their son, Andrew, 5, were detained Feb. 11. Xue and his son were freed after 26 days.

Also Thursday, Beijing freed the other convicted scholar, Qin Guangguang, who has worked at several U.S. universities. But Powell indicated that Qin has elected to stay in China. A third scholar, U.S. citizen Li Shaomin, convicted earlier of spying for Taiwan, was expelled Wednesday and put on a flight to San Francisco.

Powell's reaction to this housecleaning has been rather muted. He described the harassment of scholars as "irritations" and indicative of flaws in the Chinese legal system that allow people to suffer who have done no wrong. But he also emphasized the issue came amid an "upswing" in relations between the two powers following tensions over the collision of two U.S. and Chinese military planes in April.

The Bush adminstration is right to have a policy of engagement with China, but it shouldn't shy from shouting about the disdain China has shown for its own people, not to mention the treatment of scholars with U.S. residency. In addition to these high-profile cases, tens of thousands of Chinese are in prison or in re-education camps facing torture, beatings, execution.

Harassing U.S. residents sends a message to Chinese citizens to toe the line or else. But it also sends a message to foreign scholars and business people that they ought to think long and hard about the genuine risk of visiting China--and that will only damage China's efforts to modernize its nation.

"Now that Mali and Chile and Mongolia are democratic, people are beginning to ask: Why not China?" asks Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania expert on China. "At a minimum, why not stop arresting and killing people?" Exactly right. The more things change . . .

Engagement and diplomacy are fine, but let's also speak honestly about China.