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Two women sentenced to 're-education' in China

August 22, 2008

The International Herald Tribune (France)
By Andrew Jacobs
August 21, 2008

BEIJING -- In the annals of people who have struggled against
Communist Party rule, Wu Dianyuan and Wang Xiuying are unlikely to
merit even a footnote.

The two women, both in their late 70s, have never spoken out against
China's authoritarian government. Both walk with the help of a cane,
and Wang is blind in one eye. Their grievance, receiving insufficient
compensation when their homes were seized for redevelopment, is
perhaps the most common complaint among Chinese displaced during the
country's long streak of fast economic growth.

But the Beijing police still sentenced the two women to an
extrajudicial term of "re-education through labor" this week for
applying to hold a legal protest in a designated area in Beijing,
where officials promised that Chinese could hold demonstrations
during the Olympic Games.

They became the most recent examples of people punished for
submitting applications to protest. A few would-be demonstrators have
simply disappeared, at least for the duration of the Games,
squelching already diminished hopes that the influx of foreigners and
the prestige of holding the Games would push China's leaders to relax
their tight grip on political expression.

"Can you imagine two old ladies in their 70s being re-educated
through labor?" asked Li Xuehui, Wu's son, who said the police told
the two women that their sentence might remain in suspension if they
stayed at home and stopped asking for permission to protest.

"I feel very sad and angry because we're only asking for the basic
right of living and it's been six years, but nobody will do anything
to help," Li said.

It is unclear why the police have detained people who sought
permission to protest. Some political analysts say the police may be
refusing to enforce the government's order, announced last month, to
allow protest zones. Chinese lawyers and human rights advocates also
suggested a more cynical motivation ? that the authorities were using
the possibility of legal demonstrations as a ploy to lure restive
citizens into declaring their intention to protest, allowing the
police to take action against them.

When the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Beijing
in 2001, ignoring critics who said China should not be rewarded for
repression, its president, Jacques Rogge, offering assurances that
they would invariably spur China toward greater openness.

But prospects dimmed even before the opening ceremonies, when
overseas journalists arrived to discover that China's promise to
provide uncensored Internet access was riddled with caveats. The
ensuing uproar did persuade the government to unblock some
politically sensitive Web sites, but many others, including those
that discuss Tibet and the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, remain
inaccessible at the Olympic press center.

The announcement that the police had set up special protest zones was
initially greeted as a positive if modest step that could allow
Chinese a new channel to voice grievances otherwise ignored by party
authorities and the state-run media.

"In order to ensure smooth traffic flow, a nice environment and good
social order, we will invite these participants to hold their
demonstrations in designated places," Liu Shaowu, the security
director for Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, said at a news
conference. He described the creation of three so-called protest
zones and suggested that a simple application process would provide
Chinese citizens an avenue for free expression, a right that has long
been enshrined in China's Constitution but in reality is rarely granted.

But with four days left before the closing ceremonies, the
authorities acknowledge that they have yet to allow a single protest.
They claim that most of the people who filed applications had their
grievances addressed, obviating the need for a public expression of discontent.

Chinese activists say they are not surprised that the promise proved
illusory. Li Fangping, a lawyer who has been arrested and beaten for
his dogged representation of rights advocates, said there was no way
the government would allow protesters to expose some of China's most
vexing problems, among them systemic corruption, environmental
degradation and the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of
residents for projects related to the Olympics.

"For Chinese petitioners, if their protest applications were
approved, it would lead to a chain reaction of others seeking to
voice their problems as well," Li said.

During the past two decades, China has embraced a market economy and
shed some of the more onerous restrictions that dictated where people
could live, whom they could marry and whether they could leave the
country. But when it comes to political dissent and religious
freedom, the government has been unrelenting.

In theory, the Communist Party allows citizens to lobby the central
government on matters of local corruption, the illegal seizure of
land and extralegal detentions. In reality, those who arrive at
Beijing's petition office are often met at the door by plainclothes
officers who stop them from filing their complaints and then bundle
them back to their hometowns. Intimidation, beatings and
administrative detentions are often enough to prevent them from trying again.

Daniel Bell, who teaches political theory at Tsinghua University in
Beijing, suggested that Western political leaders and rights
advocates were naïve to think that the Olympics would pave the way
for the loosening of such restrictions. Although Chinese citizens
have come to enjoy greater freedoms over the past two decades,
progress has been largely stalled in the years leading up to the
Olympics as officials worked to ensure that nothing would interfere
with the Games.

In recent months, the pressure has only intensified: scores of rights
lawyers and political dissenters have been detained, and even the
armies of migrant workers who built the Olympic stadiums have been
encouraged to leave town, lest their disheveled appearances detract
from the image of a clean, modern nation.

"When you have guests coming over for dinner, you clean up the house
and tell the children not to argue," Bell said.

While the demands of Wu, 79, and Wang, 77, the protest applicants,
might be seen as harmless, they threatened to expose the systemic
problems that bedevil the lives of millions of Chinese. Like many
disenchanted citizens, the two women, former neighbors, were seeking
to draw attention to a government-backed real estate deal that
promised to give them apartments in the new development that replaced
their homes not far from Tiananmen Square. Six years later, they are
living in ramshackle apartments on the outskirts of the city, and
their demands for compensation have gone unanswered.

On Monday, when they returned to the police station to follow up on
their protest applications, the women were told they had been
sentenced to one year at a labor camp for "disturbing public order."
For the moment, the women have been allowed to return to their homes,
but they have been warned that they could be sent to a detention
center at any moment, relatives said.

Officials say that they received 77 protest applications but that
nearly all of them were dropped after the complaints were "properly
addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations."

At a news conference on Wednesday, Wang Wei, the vice president of
Beijing's Olympic organizing committee, was asked about the lack of
protests. He said it showed the system was working. "I'm glad to hear
that over 70 protest issues have been solved through consultation,
dialogue," he said. "This is a part of Chinese culture."

But human rights advocates say that instead of pointing the way
toward a more open society, the Olympics have put China's political
controls on display.

"Given this moment when the international spotlight is shining on
China, when so much of the international media are in Beijing, it's
unfathomable why the authorities are intensifying social control,"
said Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China.
"The truth is they're sending a clear and disturbing message, one
they're not even trying to hide, which is we're not even interested
in hearing dissenting voices."
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