China Plays Cat-and-Mouse with Emboldened Democrats Agreement Last Week to Sign UN Rights Pact Opens Window for a Second Political Party

Article excerpt

As Beijing prepares to sign a global bill of rights pact, democracy activists are already testing the government's pledge to expand political freedoms.

The Communist Party's agreement last week to sign the United Nations covenant on civil and political rights is breathing new life into China's long-silenced dissident community.

Activists nationwide, many of them former student leaders of 1989's massive democracy demonstrations, are joining to attempt to set up the China Democracy Party, register local human rights watchdogs, and appeal for the abolition of political labor camps.

Would-be founders of Communist China's first opposition party have applied to register the party in six provinces in the last weeks, says Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based human rights group.

Yet the Communist Party is sending out mixed signals in how it intends to deal with the resurgence of democracy activists, which could reflect a split among Beijing's rulers over how extensively to comply with the UN's mandate on freedom of speech and association.

Some activists fear China's security organs may be setting a huge mousetrap for them.

In the last several days, the police have detained dissidents trying to register the Democratic Party in Shanghai, Beijing, and Changchun, says Mr. Lu. While most have since been released, at least one is still being held. In contrast with the State Security Ministry's arrests, officials in the more reform-minded Ministry of Civil Affairs have told Democratic Party applicants in eastern Shandong and central Hubei province that the government would consider the proposal if detailed membership and leadership lists are submitted.

The Communist Party for nearly a half century has relied on its monopoly on power, a ban on independent rights monitors, and its political gulags to rule. Granting concessions in any of those areas could fundamentally alter China's political landscape.

But a multiparty system, civilian checks on rights abuses, and a ban on extrajudicial jailings would all seem to be mandated under the UN covenant on political rights that China is set to sign, says Andrew Nathan, a legal scholar at Columbia University in New York. Yet Professor Nathan and other experts on international law say there is no guarantee that China will faithfully adhere to the covenant's provisions. …

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