By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 2, 2008
ZHENGDING, China -- Behind the gray walls and barbed wire of the prison here, eight Chinese farmers with a grievance against the government have been consigned to Olympic limbo.
Their indefinite detainment, relatives and neighbors said, is the price they are paying for stirring up trouble as China prepares to host the Beijing Games. Trouble, the Communist Party has made clear, will not be permitted.
"My bet is the authorities won't let them out until after the Olympics," said Wang Xiahua, a veteran anti-government agitator from this farm town 180 miles southwest of Beijing and a supporter of the imprisoned farmers.
The Olympic Games have become the occasion for a broad crackdown against dissidents, gadflies and malcontents this summer. Although human rights activists say they have no accurate estimate of how many people have been imprisoned, they believe the figure to be in the thousands.
The crackdown comes seven years after the secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee declared that staging the Games in the Chinese capital would "not only promote our economy but also enhance all social conditions, including education, health and human rights."
Now, human rights have been set back rather than enhanced, activists say.
"The Olympics have reversed the clock," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based specialist for Human Rights in China.
Another foreign human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, came to a similar conclusion in a report issued Monday titled "The Olympics Countdown -- Broken Promises."
"By continuing to persecute and punish those who speak out for human rights, the Chinese authorities have lost sight of the promises they made when they were granted the Games seven years ago," said Roseann Rife, Amnesty's Asia-Pacific deputy director. "The Chinese authorities are tarnishing the legacy of the Games."
The repressive atmosphere has intensified in part because senior Communist Party officials seem to be just as determined to prevent embarrassing protests -- which could be televised -- as they are to avert terrorist attacks during the Olympics. In exhortations to security forces, Public Security Ministry commanders and Xi Jinping, the senior Communist Party leader in charge of Olympic preparations, repeatedly have said that police must block any attempt to damage China's image.
Despite these concerns, President Bush and many other world leaders have accepted China's invitation to attend the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday. After saying for months that the Games should be viewed only as a sporting event, Bush met with Chinese rights activists Tuesday and said he would use the opportunity to remind President Hu Jintao of U.S. support for human rights. The Foreign Ministry criticized his gesture, calling it interference in China's internal affairs. But his decision to attend was still being interpreted as endorsement of China's contention that the Olympic Games are not an appropriate stage for human rights appeals.
Bequelin, the researcher at Human Rights in China, said the opportunity for foreign governments to use the Olympics to pressure China on human rights has passed in any case, because world leaders are likely to be reluctant to embarrass Hu and other party leaders with strong stands during China's moment in the sun.
"It is a new low for the international community to see all these state leaders going to Beijing without saying anything about the repressive environment in which the Games are being held," he added.
The Olympics were far from the minds of the Zhengding farmers when they took on authorities a little more than a year ago. As is frequently the case in China, their problem was a decision by local authorities to seize their land to make way for economic development, specifically an expansion of the airport for the nearby city of Shijiazhuang. The land was taken, they said, but the full compensation never made its way into their pockets.
After a series of protests, 10 of the disgruntled farmers were arrested in June 2007. They were tried in a local court and convicted in November of illegal gatherings and disrupting social stability. But in January, relatives said, an appeals court in Shijiazhuang overturned the convictions, citing lack of evidence, and they were released pending a retrial.
In releasing them, police also warned that the protests had to stop, particularly during the Olympic period. When they refused to back down -- and after a Beijing reporter inquired about their fate -- the 10 were arrested again last month.
One took sick and had to be hospitalized, neighbors said, and another was released after convincing authorities he would be quiet. The other eight were confined to the Zhengding Detainment Center on the edge of town, where a notice posted at the entrance says that during the Olympic period, their families cannot visit or bring gifts, "except cash."
Human rights activists said many of those imprisoned during the Olympic crackdown are being held for short periods without formal legal proceedings.
"Thousands of people, including petitioners who have gone to Beijing seeking justice from the government, have been swept up in efforts to clean up the city before the games," Amnesty International said in its report issued Monday.
Traveling to Beijing to complain has a long history in China, dating from imperial times and carried on since the Communist Party took over in 1949. Chinese upset with their local party and government leaders almost invariably express belief that national leaders would solve the problem if only they were aware of it.
With increasing urgency, however, the central government has urged local party officials to solve such problems on the spot to reduce the number of people showing up in Beijing.
As a result, party officials in Zhengding and other such towns have organized a series of meetings recently to receive citizen complaints. But the other side of the coin has been reinforced determination by security forces to prevent travel by dissidents determined to visit the capital anyway.
Li Zijing, a 46-year-old surgeon who complained that a hospital in Jiangxi province botched his kidney treatment, said he went to Beijing in March for the second time to petition for redress. But Jiangxi officials took him into custody and made him return, he said, and since the beginning of July four or five people guard his house lest he try again.
"No matter where we go, they follow us," he said. "They said they were hired by the hospital, and surveillance will last for the next four months. It is said the Olympics are approaching so they worry about us petitioners."
Security forces seem determined to prevent those and other dissidents from finding an echo in the media, human rights activists said, particularly the foreign media that have been reinforced in China during the Olympic period. To do so, they said, authorities have devised a panoply of measures ranging from warnings, intimidation, surveillance, travel restrictions and house arrest to outright detention.
A well-known human rights activist in Beijing, for instance, sent this cellphone message Wednesday afternoon: "The police come to my place, waiting outside, and I do not know what they want to do with me." The activist was detained for 18 days last month on suspicion of planning protests during the Olympics. This time, she said, the police went away after she refused to leave home.
Similarly, Yuan Weijing, the wife of imprisoned activist Chen Guangcheng, said the number of guards watching her home in the Shangdong province town of Linyi has risen from 10 to more than 40. "Because of the Olympics approaching, people like me -- nothing more than a rights defender's wife -- are being specially protected by the government," she said in a statement disseminated by Human Rights in China.
Two longtime activists were put under detention last week in what amounted to unexplained extensions of earlier terms.
Du Daobin, a dissident Internet writer, was ordered back to jail July 24 after a court revoked an earlier suspended sentence just as the probationary period was about to end. Authorities said he had violated terms of the probation by posting comments on the Internet and receiving unauthorized visitors at his Hebei province home.
Ye Guozhu, a housing rights activist in Beijing, was detained last Saturday on suspicion of disturbing public order just as he was scheduled to be released after serving an earlier jail term connected to his anti-government agitation.
Ye's brother, Ye Guoqiang, told Human Rights in China that authorities notified the family on the day of his scheduled release.
"Ye's brother said authorities refused to explain how Ye Guozhu could gather a crowd to disturb public order while in prison," the rights group reported. "Ye Guoqiang believes they intend to block possible foreign media contact with his brother and will keep him in custody at least until after the Beijing Olympic Games have ended."