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January 30, 2008

Dissident’s Arrest Hints at Olympic Crackdown

Dissident’s Arrest Hints at Olympic Crackdown

BEIJING — When state security agents burst into his apartment last month, Hu Jia was chatting on Skype, the Internet-based telephone system. Mr. Hu’s computer was his most potent tool. He disseminated information about human rights cases, peasant protests and other politically touchy topics even though he often lived under de facto house arrest.

Mr. Hu, 34, and his wife, Zeng Jinyan, are human rights advocates who spent much of 2006 restricted to their apartment in a complex with the unlikely name of Bo Bo Freedom City. She blogged about life under detention, while he videotaped a documentary titled “Prisoner in Freedom City.” Their surreal existence seemed to reflect an official uncertainty about how, and whether, to shut them up.

That ended on Dec. 27. Mr. Hu was dragged away on charges of subverting state power while Ms. Zeng was bathing their newborn daughter, Qianci. Telephone and Internet connections to the apartment were severed. Mother and daughter are now under house arrest. Qianci, barely 2 months old, is probably the youngest political prisoner in China.

For human rights advocates and Chinese dissidents, Mr. Hu’s detention is the most telling example of what they describe as a broadening crackdown on dissent as Beijing prepares to play host to the Olympic Games in August. In recent months, several dissidents have been jailed, including a former factory worker in northeastern China who collected 10,000 signatures after posting an online petition titled “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics.”

January 28, 2008

China's New Dictatorship Diplomacy

Is Beijing Parting With Pariahs?

China is often accused of supporting a string of despots, nuclear proliferators, and genocidal regimes, shielding them from international pressure and thus reversing progress on human rights and humanitarian principles. But over the last two years, Beijing has been quietly overhauling its policies toward pariah states. It strongly denounced North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 and took the lead, with the United States, in drafting a sweeping United Nations sanctions resolution against Pyongyang. Over the past year, it has voted to impose and then tighten sanctions on Iran, it has supported the deployment of a United Nations-African Union (UN-AU) force in Darfur, and it has condemned a brutal government crackdown in Burma (which the ruling junta renamed Myanmar in 1989). China is now willing to condition its diplomatic protection of pariah countries, forcing them to become more acceptable to the international community. And it is supporting -- in some cases even helping to create -- processes that chart a path to legitimacy for these states, such as the six-party talks on North Korea, thereby minimizing their exposure to coercive measures.

China's changing calculation of its economic and political interests has partly driven this shift. With its increased investments in pariah countries over the past decade, China has had to devise a more sophisticated approach to protecting its assets and its citizens abroad. It no longer sees providing uncritical and unconditional support to unpopular, and in some cases fragile, regimes as the most effective strategy. An even more important motivator has been the West's heightened expectations for China's global role. Faced with the 17th Party Congress last October, the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and presidential elections in Taiwan also later this year, Chinese officials would have preferred to think about avoiding trouble at home rather than about developing a new foreign policy. But the nuclear crises in North Korea and Iran and international outcry over developments in Darfur and Burma have forced their hand: Beijing has no choice but to worry about its international image. China's fears about a backlash and the potential damage to its strategic and economic relationships with the United States and Europe have prompted Beijing to put great effort into demonstrating that it is a responsible power.

January 10, 2008

Caution: lust

More sex please, we're Chinese cinema-goers

In a country awash with pirated films featuring explicit sex and violence, China's prudish censors risk irrelevance. Their heavy-handed treatment of two recent films has sparked a lively debate about whether cinemas should at last be allowed to show something racier.

At present, films deemed unsuitable for children may not be shown to adults either. But the censors are under attack. Critics include Gong Li, a famous actress and government adviser, who last March appealed for a rating system that would give adults more choice. Complaints have mounted following the removal of sex scenes from “Lust, Caution”, a spy thriller by a Taiwan-born Oscar-winning director, Ang Lee, and the outright banning this month of “Lost in Beijing”, a sexually explicit drama by a Chinese director, Li Yu.

The internet and rampant film piracy mean censors' cuts do not go unnoticed. Chinese internet users can readily find websites showing the expurgated parts of “Lust, Caution”. Uncensored bootleg copies are peddled on the streets. The rapid growth of overseas tourism frustrates the censors too. The press reports that some Chinese travel agents have been offering trips to the cinema to see “Lust, Caution” uncut as part of their Hong Kong tour packages.

The bullet or the needle

A change in technique for the world's busiest executioners?

China's leaders love talking about all the indicators that show China leading the world. Whether it is growth rates, production figures or trade volumes, officials relish any chance to unleash a barrage of dazzling statistics. They are less gung-ho about another category where China leaves the world trailing: use of the death penalty. Indeed, the number of Chinese criminal executions remains a state secret.

Foreign human-rights groups make valiant efforts to scour local press reports and tally the sums, but reckon they hear about only a fraction of the cases. In 2006 Amnesty International, a human-rights lobbying group, counted 2,790 people sentenced to death in China and 1,010 executed. Other groups put annual executions at 7,500 or more. Even per head, using low estimates, China probably outstrips every country but Singapore. It also has a greater number of capital offences than anywhere else: more than 60. These include murder and other violent crimes, but also smuggling, drug trafficking and many “economic crimes” such as bribe-taking, embezzlement and even tax evasion.

This month it was revealed that China is planning a big change. The traditional method of execution—a single bullet to the back of the convict's head—is to be replaced by a lethal injection. Jiang Xingchang, of the Supreme People's Court, told the press this is because injections are considered “more humane”.