Fears of political instability behind detention of democracy activists


The closure of two informal groups and the detention of several pro-democracy activists in recent days in China point to an increasing concern in the Beijing leadership about the prospect of instability. Unconnected protests by citizens against unemployment, unpaid wages and pensions and corruption are becoming a regular occurrence. Police on Saturday shut down an anti-corruption group called "Corruptive Behaviour Observers". Last Monday an academic think-tank known as China Development Union was closed. Yesterday public security officials refused to allow the union's founder to cross the border into Hong Kong on his way to visit US universities.

The continuing suppression of free speech and democratic activity is raising questions about the effectiveness of the EU-China dialogue on human rights which began in the last year, though EU officials say it is too early to expect major changes. The European Commission President, Mr Jacques Santer, claimed on Friday in Beijing that the dialogue was making progress, in that China had signed the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and welcomed the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mrs Mary Robinson.

The anti-corruption group closed on Saturday was funded by nine dissidents living in seven provinces and had some 100 members. A Chinese State Council official ordered Mr An Jun, a dissident living in Xinyang, to terminate all activities of the organisation, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China.

The Beijing-based China Development Union, which police raided and dissolved last Monday, was founded by a former official and businessman, Mr Peng Ming (42), who was travelling to the US for two weeks at the invitation of Harvard and Columbia universities.

In the past five days more than 20 democracy activists have been questioned or detained to prevent them showing support for a colleague, who faces eviction and whose wife was forced out of her teaching job after he applied to register a new political party.

The treatment of an Australian television crew in Beijing last Wednesday underlines the nervousness of the authorities about instability, as demonstrations by dissatisfied workers become commonplace in Chinese cities. ABC news was covering a peaceful protest by unpaid wholesalers outside a bankrupt department store when the crew was detained by police. and held for 31/2 hours.

The crackdown extends to previously allowed publications. The authorities at the weekend refused to allow a reprint of the book Political China: Facing the Era of Choosing a New Structure, a compendium of 39 essays by scholars and journalists which was published in August.

A US State Department spokesman said on Thursday that the recent incidents were evidence the Chinese Communist Party could not tolerate organised opposition and that China was moving backwards on human rights. The spokesman also expressed concern about a report that the Chinese authorities forced 49 elderly monks to retire from a Tibetan Buddhist temple, contrary to the Buddhist tradition.

A Sino-European seminar on women's issues in Beijing last week, sponsored by the EU and the All-China Women's Federation, was attended by Ms Noreen Byrne, chairwoman of the National Women's Council of Ireland, and Ms Anastasia Crickley, of the Centre for Applied Social Studies at NUI, Maynooth.