China Uses Heavy Hand Even With Its Gadflies

Zheng Enchong in his Shanghai home. Police sometimes keep him from attending church.
Zheng Enchong in his Shanghai home. Police sometimes keep him from attending church. (By Feng Zhenghu)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

SHANGHAI -- Zheng Enchong is a self-taught lawyer and a dogged human rights activist. In many countries, he would be considered a gadfly. But in China during this Olympic year, he is treated like a threat to national security.

One police surveillance camera tapes whoever enters or leaves his Shanghai apartment. Another monitors whoever presses the elevator button. A third records people in the building's elevator.

Lest the cameras prove unreliable, plainclothes police officers lounge in one corner of Zheng's landing through the day, smoking, sipping tea and playing cards.

Often, Zheng said, they prevent him from leaving his building. When he tried in February to go out to buy dumplings, the guards beat him up. In recent months, he said, they have been allowing him to attend church most Sunday mornings. But sometimes not. He never knows exactly why.

"That's the way things are for me," the round-faced lawyer said in an interview, smiling haplessly as if embarrassed by his fate. "It's been going on for the last two years."

As Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games in August, the grinding controls imposed by the Chinese government on Zheng and other civil rights activists over the last decade are coming under growing scrutiny abroad.

China's security forces have extensive experience and little legal restriction in suppressing dissent. But domestic challenges to Communist Party rule are playing out today within a rising international debate over what place China's human rights record should have in the Olympics.

The Chinese government insists that the Games should have nothing to do with politics. Foreign activists, however, argue that the desire to celebrate athletic achievement should not be a reason for the world to ignore the dark side of Chinese policies.

President Bush, aligning with China's rulers, disagrees. He plans to attend the opening extravaganza Aug. 8. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has taken a similar position.

But since rioting erupted in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14, international concern has swelled, in particular over the fate of Tibetans. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France responded by saying a boycott of the Olympics opening ceremony is worth considering. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced she is staying away. As part of her presidential campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) suggested Monday that Bush should follow suit, citing China's conduct regarding Tibet and the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Little mentioned in the debate are the daily challenges -- from monitoring to arrest -- risked by Zheng and any of China's 1.3 billion residents if they challenge the party line.

Zheng, a 57-year-old Shanghai native, first encountered trouble during the Cultural Revolution at age 17. He was sent to far northern Heilongjiang province, just south of what was then the Soviet Union, interrupting his secondary school studies. When he arrived back in Shanghai six years later, he had no diploma and no place to live.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company