Dissidents freed, but China crackdown continues

Political activist Hu Jia has been released from a Chinese jail after a three and a half year sentence for 'inciting subversion'. But China still refuses to tolerate dissent.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in the UK for a strategic trade summit on Saturday evening. At the same time, thousands of miles away, political activist Hu Jia was released from a Chinese jail. For more than three years, he had served time as one of hundreds who have been imprisoned for daring to criticise the country's communist regime.

Fellow dissident Ai Weiwei was also freed last week after an international campaign for his release. Mr Ai, a respected artist and a noted critic of the Chinese government, had been detained in April on charges of tax evasion, but democracy campaigners say the arrest was really about politics rather than money.

China watchers say the releases were timed to coincide with Wen Jiabao's visit. Thought to be a liberal, in a government full of hardliners, Wen faces pressure from European leaders to improve his country's record on human rights. He will see this as an unwelcome distraction from more important questions – in particular the European debt crisis which threatens to severely dampen EU demand for Chinese exports.

By releasing these two high-profile campaigners, the Chinese government has reduced the amount of protest they will face from Europe. But China is keeping a tight grip on its discontented citizens. Ai Weiwei has refused to speak to the media since his release, explaining that he is forbidden from giving interviews.

Meanwhile, Hu Jia's house is surrounded by police and his 'political privileges' have been revoked for one year, according to his wife. That means that, like Ai, he cannot speak to the press.

Since the latest crackdown on dissidents began earlier this year, 130 people have disappeared or have been arrested. Most of these are still missing. Chinese citizens who dare to whisper about a 'jasmine revolution' in favour of democratic reforms can still expect a visit from the secret police.

Chinese bargain

There's a reason why Wen Jiabao wants to focus on the economy. China's miraculous economic growth has kept the country's huge population largely content, despite little political freedom. People keep getting richer. Their lives keep getting better. For this, they thank the government. Wen Jiabao is known to many Chinese by the affectionate nickname 'Grandpa Wen'.

So long as the economy remains strong, many will be happy to continue the unspoken pact that keeps China stable: the government provides growth and jobs and the people remain obedient to one-party rule. Only a few are willing to challenge this arrangement, and for the moment, they will remain an oppressed and persecuted minority.

You Decide

  1. Which is more important, wealth or political freedom?
  2. Should European leaders urge Chinese leaders to release Chinese dissidents? Is it any of the West's business? Why / why not?

Activities

  1. Design EITHER a protest banner calling on citizens to sacrifice stability for freedom OR a government poster calling on citizens to obey the rules for the economic benefit of the country.
  2. Do some further research on the history of China. Why do you think the Chinese government is desperate to avoid instability?

Some People Say...

“I'd rather be wealthy under communism than penniless in a democracy.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What exactly is the Chinese political system?
It's officially a communist country, and has been ever since Mao Zedong defeated right-wing forces in China after WWII. For many years, the Chinese government worked under strict communist principles, where there was almost no private property and no free markets.
But now things are different?
At the beginning of the 80s, China adopted a new constitution which allowed some free market activity and private property. These reforms unleashed an unparalleled economic boom. However, the government of the country remained in the hands of the Communist Party.
Doesn't anyone try to change that?
Most people are content. The biggest protests came in 1989, when students led marches in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The government responded with military force, killing hundreds.

Word Watch

Communist
Communism is a political idea that originated with the German philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th Century. He wrote that wealth in societies should be distributed equally and that land should be communally owned rather than private property.
Dissident
Someone who is unhappy with the political system or who gives voice to political discontent.
EU demand for Chinese exports
Much of China's prosperity comes from exporting cheap goods to the EU and USA. If the EU gets poorer, Europeans buy fewer Chinese goods and the Chinese economy suffers.
Jasmine revolution
Chinese protesters were inspired by the 'Jasmine revolution' in Tunisia in February 2011, and hoped to create their own Jasmine revolution to bring reform to China. However, street protests were quickly suppressed.

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