Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Yes, We Have No Political Prisoners

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Yes, We Have No Political Prisoners

Article excerpt

My guide at China's first human-rights exhibition explained that the purpose was to raise people's awareness of this important issue. "Human rights are written into our constitution!" he said proudly.


Why, then, the bevy of police officers with walkie-talkies, next to a phalanx of police cars, preventing the public from entering? "For security," explained Li Xiaojun of the State Council information service, whose unhappy task it was to show me around. "Because it is too crowded."

A desultory smattering of people wandered around the photographs of happy Tibetans and videos of singing children enjoying their human rights. Only those allocated tickets by their work unit--a remnant of China's communist system of control--had been granted entry.

Secret policemen in black leather jackets firmly turned away an old lady in a red windcheater who tried to come in off the street. Anyone who might be a "petitioner" with a grievance was put on a waiting bus. We filmed it moving off, another old lady staring at us plaintively from the back window, until our guide carefully placed himself in between the vehicle and our lens.

I asked Li if I could see the exhibit on political prisoners. "China has no political prisoners," he replied. "Political prisoners exist only in the minds and hearts of westerners."

Strictly speaking, he was right. In China, the courts do not convict people of disagreeing with the government, but find other reasons to lock them up. I asked about one of the country's most celebrated prisoners, Chen Guancheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer who was to be retried two days after I attended the exhibition.

Chen was convicted in August of "organising a mob to disrupt traffic" and "damaging public property". His real crime, however, was to represent the women of Linyi, in his native Shandong Province, who were suing the local authorities for forcing them to have abortions in the eighth month of pregnancy.

International human-rights groups and even the US state department protested about the original trial, which Chen's lawyers were barred from attending. Two witnesses later claimed to have been tortured. Someone seems to have decided that it couldn't stand, so the verdict was overturned on appeal and the case sent back to be heard again. All this appeared to have escaped Li. …

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