China's thin skin

Sunday, July 11, 2010

HERE ARE SIX chilling words associated with China's most recent abuse of human rights: "Wen Jiabao isn't a normal citizen." Mr. Wen is China's premier, and this explanation was offered by Chinese security officials when they detained writer Yu Jie last week. Mr. Yu is a best-selling author in China, but his forthcoming book about Mr. Wen apparently has been deemed unacceptable. China claims to be a nation of laws, but the prime minister is not a "normal citizen": He is above the law.

Mr. Yu plans to release his critical book, "China's Best Actor: Wen Jiabao," this fall. He said that plainclothes security agents temporarily detained him on Monday and threatened that publication of the book could land Mr. Yu in a position similar to that of Liu Xiaobo, another famous author and activist, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison last December for inciting to subvert state power -- a catchall charge for voicing any disagreement with the government. The justification for such a dire warning was that criticism of a man of Mr. Wen's stature "hurts the nation's interests and security," Mr. Yu paraphrased.

China's human rights record is dismal enough that the latest crackdown on political opposition should not surprise, but there is a disturbing new element, human rights activists say: the government's total lack of reticence in going after even high-profile targets, such as Mr. Yu. The brazenness is a reflection of Beijing's increasing assertiveness in the international sphere -- and its calculation that there is little or no price to be paid in its relations with the United States or other nations for abusing its own citizens.

The principle that government should be accountable to the governed is an integral part of democracy. It also is enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, which states in Article 5, "No organization or individual may enjoy the privilege of being above the Constitution and the law." So to say that Mr. Wen is insulated from criticism because of his leadership position violates Chinese law as well as accepted standards of decency. It calls into question China's contention that benevolent authoritarianism can coexist with a genuine rule of law. And the regime's fear of criticism from its own people calls into question the self-confidence that supposedly undergirds its increased assertiveness abroad.

After his brief detention, Mr. Yu indicated that the threat of longer imprisonment would not deter him. "As a writer, I consider freedom of speech an essential part of my life," he told the New York Times. "Without it, I will be a walking corpse, with no meaning and no value." Chinese citizens of such courage clearly are not counting on support from outside. But they deserve more than they are getting.

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