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[Analysis] Arresting journalists is just one of many ways for Beijing to stack its deck of influence
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-06-13 13:50 (KST)   
Party gates
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
It's an old party trick: accuse someone of crashing the festivities and shady figures emerge from the shadows to shuttle the poor sod away. A slight disruption, perhaps, even a necessity, maybe. But when the party involves a gang of totalitarian ideologues there's not much to laugh about. Suddenly the individual becomes a traitor who has betrayed the party and the stakes are as high as life itself. This name, shame and blame game is a favorite among regimes currently darkening isolated outposts of the globe -- Burma (Myanmar), Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. What they share, apart from human rights violations, is a growing relationship with China.

In the "Middle Kingdom" the politics of vilification enjoys a long tradition. Anyone or anything that the government dislikes is branded as counter-revolutionary. It happened with deadly precision during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 when even esteemed cadres were not immune. Former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping vanished twice, once in the late 60s and then again in 1976 after the death of Premier Zhou Enlai sparked the protests known as the Tiananmen Incident.

It happened again during prelude to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre when the student protests were growing. The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily published an editorial accusing a "small handful of plotters" of stirring up student unrest, of being counter-revolutionaries and creating turmoil. This effectively sealed the fate of the organizers and hardened their resolve to demand concessions from the government. Many see this editorial as a major cause of the stalemate that arose between the students and the government, eventually causing the massacre and the subsequent purging of Zhao Ziyang, the reformist General Secretary of the Communist Party at the time.

As with the events of Tiananmen, international opinion has also played a part in more recent cases. Beijing has shown increasing hubris by using accusations of espionage to silence journalists. On April 22, Ching Cheong, senior China correspondent for The Straight Times of Singapore, was detained in the southern Chinese city Guangzhou on suspicion of espionage. This is an extremely serious charge, one that carries the death penalty. While the mainland authorities have yet to produce any evidence, his wife, Mary Lau Man-yee and his newspaper vehemently deny the accusations.

"The Middle Kingdom"
©2005 D. Kootnikoff
Both the mainland and Hong Kong authorities failed to deliver formal notification of Ching's arrest to his wife until a May 30 article in the Washington Post sparked international concern. The Beijing National Security Bureau has refused to comment on why it took six weeks for formal notification of his house arrest to reach Ching's wife.

The unique relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland authorities requires a formal procedure to be followed in the event of a Hong Kong resident being detained on the mainland. It remains unclear if this was adhered to (house arrests occupy a gray area in the agreement) or what the Hong Kong government could do if the mainland neglects to fulfill its obligations. It appears the authorities in Beijing were only moved to act once Ching's detention became international news.

According to Lau and Hong Kong officials such as Legislator Margaret Ng, during 2004 Ching was actually researching reports about affairs on Hong Kong and Taiwan for Beijing. Ching's wife also confirmed that he was in Guangzhou in April to pick up a highly sensitive manuscript containing interviews with the late Zhao Ziyang that some in Beijing might be anxious to stifle.

The Hong Kong government has done little more than to repeat its usual position that it is unable to interfere with the mainland's legal system. Donald Tsang, Beijing's choice for Hong Kong's next Chief Executive, refused a request from Ching's wife to meet with her saying, "it is not possible for the Chief Executive to meet everyone...I believe that action is more important than meetings...the important thing is not to get too emotionally involved."

Media-rights group Reporters Without Borders calls China "the world's largest prison for journalists" with 32 journalists currently being held on ambiguous charges. The list includes Zhou Yan, a researcher working for The New York Times who suddenly disappeared in Shanghai last September. Over a month later he was accused of "divulging state secrets," a charge that also carries the death penalty. On June 1, he was charged with fraud, thus enabling the government to hold him for another seven months while they pursue their investigation.

Nicholas Becquelin, research director for Human Rights in China, stated that such high-profile arrests were the authorities' way "to terrorize local journalists" and "send a chilling effect to the media."

Such terror tactics can also threaten regional stability. As the historical lessons of World War II prove, a country that deprives its own citizens of human rights is very likely to disregard the rights of others. This fact has become all too plain in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Last year, Beijing engaged in a so-called "patriotism campaign" to discredit the democratic movement. Martin Lee, the founding Chairman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party) came under fire after visiting Washington, D.C in March 2004. While there he met with U.S. officials, including current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to brief them on the situation of democratic reform in Hong Kong. As founder of the party with the most elected seats in Hong Kong's legislature, these meetings were not unusual. While there Lee also expressed faith in the Communist leadership stating, "Ultimately I believe the new leaders in Beijing will understand that what we are doing is actually good for Hong Kong and Taiwan."

However, PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing dismissed Lee's overture and reiterated that China regards Hong Kong as its property stating, "We do not welcome, nor do we need, any outside intervention in Hong Kong affairs."

Upon Lee's return to Hong Kong, he stepped into the maw of a scandal that was unleashed in his absence. Xinhua, the government mouthpiece, demonized Lee as a "traitor" and he was met at the airport by detractors shouting and waving placards of condemnation.

The China Daily, the Communist Party's English daily, also chimed in to attack Lee as a "running dog of colonialists."

Lee's family was also targeted. In Beijing, Vice Minister An Min lashed out at Lee's late father, noted Kuomintang (KMT) General Li Yin-wo, denouncing him as a traitor.

Lee's father resisted the 1941-1945 Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, as well as the communists. As a result, he is widely regarded as an embodiment of virtue in this city, a prime example of what differentiates Hong Kong from mainland China.

Lee addressed the issue of patriotism, distinguishing it from loyalty to the Communist Party, by raising the specter of the architect of Hong Kong's political system, stating, "Whom did Deng (Xiaoping) define as a patriot? He said any person who supports China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and the "one country, two systems policy"! That certainly makes me and all other democrats in Hong Kong patriots. We don't want independence -- we've made that clear. Not a single person wants that. We just want democracy, as promised, under the "one country, two systems" policy. That is all."

Nevertheless, mainland officials continued to brand Lee and his family as traitors at every available opportunity and extended their attacks to other high profile figures.

In June of 2004, symbolic first lady of Hong Kong, Anson Chan, current vice-chairman for Unicef Hong Kong and former Chief Secretary of the SAR, become the target. When she wrote an article in Time magazine that included a rebuke of the mainland's patriotism campaign, she too was dragged through the mud and accused of being unpatriotic.

The amount of economic clout pro-Beijing officials wield in Hong Kong is impossible to underestimate, and therein lies much of their power. For example, last month Hong Kong's Final Court of Appeal overturned convictions for eight Falun Gong members. It was a verdict widely seen as affirming Hong Kong's civil liberties, but the publisher of their newspaper, The Epoch Times, suddenly dropped the group. The Falun Gong, demonized as an "evil cult" by the mainland, eventually found another publisher. The case remains a troubling reminder of how commerce can be used to influence civil liberties beyond mainland China.

In other developments, it was recently revealed that eight professors from the University of Hong Kong's Law Faculty would not be continuing this upcoming year. Their departure, which includes prominent constitutional expert Yash Ghai and Human Rights expert Lyal Sunga, has raised fears of a "brain drain" due in part to the mainland's strident interference in Hong Kong's affairs.

While the Hong Kong government does little more than cower, the international community is lining up for investment opportunities, kowtowing to Beijing for a higher spot in the queue. The Australian government is trying to negotiate a free trade deal. However, recent developments involving Chinese diplomatic defector, Chen Yonglin's corroborated accusations of an extensive spy network suggests Beijing's bullying tactics may be spilling across national borders. Many are considering whether Australia should allow this to influence its negotiations.

Beijing is also reaching out in other ways. In the wake of the May 13 slaughter of unarmed civilians in Uzbekistan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated "China supports the efforts of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to preserve regional peace and stability." Uzbek President Islam Karimov also received a special invitation from Beijing to discuss bilateral cooperation.

It appears that Beijing has decided to sustain its repression of journalists and those who advocate human rights while supporting regimes that pursue similar tactics. In this way, should any counter-revolutionaries flee China their return will be easy to secure. The chance of China's particular forms of commerce and party tricks catching on beyond its own borders remains a very real possibility. An invitation to the richest party in town can be hard to resist.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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