CHINA EXPERTS like to talk about how quickly the vast country is changing: the increase in personal freedoms, the spread of the Internet, the triumph of private enterprise. These changes are real, and significant. But such talk can too easily obscure how much in the regime remains unchanged -- how cruelly it continues to treat many of its own people. China's Communist rulers commit unspeakable violence against their subjects, not occasionally, not aberrantly but as policy: to stay in power. And to the extent that their repressiveness discourages open discussion, it succeeds; it leaves the field to those China hands who would rather focus on the Internet than the gulag.
One stunning reminder of China's dark side came in a Sunday report by Post China correspondents John Pomfret and Philip P. Pan. They documented the regime's systematic campaign of violence, torture and brainwashing against a peaceful spiritual movement known as Falun Gong. China's leaders, who routinely bulldoze churches and arrest Buddhist monks, decided that this movement too was a threat; so far, more than 250 believers have died in prisons and reeducation camps, the movement says. That number is trifling compared with those who have been tortured and broken, such as James Ouyang, described in The Post as "a slight man with thick glasses and crooked teeth":
"At a police station in western Beijing, Ouyang was stripped and interrogated for five hours. 'If I responded incorrectly, that is if I didn't say, "Yes," they shocked me with the electric truncheon,' he said. . . . [T]he guards ordered him to stand facing a wall. If he moved, they shocked him. If he fell down from fatigue, they shocked him. Each morning, he had five minutes to eat and relieve himself. 'If I didn't make it, I went in my pants,' he said. 'And they shocked me for that, too.' By the sixth day, Ouyang said, he couldn't see straight from staring at plaster three inches from his face. His knees buckled, prompting more shocks and beatings. He gave in to the guards' demands."
Even so, he was beaten for three more days before his confession was deemed sufficiently sincere.
Nor is it only Falun Gong believers who are thus treated. Han Lifa, 39, spent most of the past decade in labor camps for advocating democracy. His most recent sentence was extended by two years when he refused, after the U.S. bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, to chant "Down with America" during a labor camp meeting. "Every day they beat me," said Mr. Han, who was freed last month, just ahead of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to China.
A couple of U.S.-trained academics also were freed just before Mr. Powell's visit. But lest anyone interpret that as a softening, the regime indicted another naturalized American academic, Wu Jianming, on Aug. 1. Defenders of the Chinese regime in this country often shake their heads at such arrests; so "counterproductive," they say. It's true that such arrests don't help the regime's image, particularly when (as happened in one case) the academic's 5-year-old son is separately arrested and detained for a month. But the arrests may not only be a sign of insecurity among the leaders or power struggles between "westernizers" and "conservatives," as the Chinese hands often posit. They serve a usefully chilling purpose; any academic, Chinese or American, who wants access to China is reminded to watch his or her words with care. A similar purpose is served by what the New York Times, in a front-page story last week, described as a "heavy-handed Chinese government campaign to monitor the activities of Chinese scholars living abroad." The campaign, which includes menacing "returnee interviews," "is quietly muting criticism of the Communist Party and curbing free speech beyond the country's borders."
Another kind of self-censorship comes from Americans eager to make the case for trade and other forms of engagement with China. Often they feel compelled to minimize the repression in order to justify their position, or to prove that trade is having an effect; perhaps they convince themselves. In fact sound arguments can be marshaled for engagement. But those arguments need not, and should not, rest on a romanticized portrait of China's dictators. An honest assessment will yield more realistic expectations of the U.S.-China relationship.