Stanley's blog

Li Datong, a Chinese journalist and former editor of “Bingdian”, a weekly supplement of the important “China Youth Daily”, argues in a hard-hitting article published on 16 May in Chinese, that the Chinese government’s response to recent events betrays a deficit in the way the country is ruled.

The Chinese government’s fury at the Olympic torch protests is easily understood – the protests humiliated China. And they were totally unexpected. The human rights situation in China is the best it has been since 1949, and this is why the Chinese government feels that is has been treated so unjustly. “Why does no one talk about our achievements?” the government wonders. The answer lies in the rule of law and institutions. The increasing freedom and improving human rights of the Chinese people lack any substantial legal foundation. The government’s overarching concern is still to keep the ruling party in power. Unrestrained government power can be relaxed and contracted at will.

When things are good, progress can be allowed, but when there are signs of trouble the one-party authoritarian system reverts to type. It is at these times that the government’s behaviour shocks. For example, as the preparation for the Olympics began in earnest, at a time when the whole world was looking at China’s human rights record, the government imprisoned Hu Jia for publishing articles on the internet, on charges of “subverting the state”.

The recent Tibetan troubles could also have been handled differently. If people want to come out of the temples and protest, what is the problem? If the route and time are arranged in accordance with the law, and the people conduct their march, shout their slogans and then go home, why should this cause trouble? The more people are repressed, the more they want to rebel. A country ruled by law should guarantee its citizens’ the right to protest. In those circumstances, if citizens break the law, they should be stopped without hesitation.

There was a lack of information and preparation on the Tibet issue before the violence broke out, and then the government shut out foreign journalists, before bringing them back in on organised tours. The government first blamed everything on the Dalai Lama, and then – after coming under international pressure – announced that it would enter into talks with his representatives. This demonstrates that the government is unsure of itself and how to act. It needs to ask itself why are a few hundred people shouting “free Tibet” is more persuasive than the hundreds of billions of yuan that the government has invested in Tibet? Why does the western public put more trust in information from the media than from the Chinese government?

The tragedy in Sichuan has taken Tibet off the front pages. The Chinese government has acted efficiently and transparently following the earthquake and has received unreserved praise.

However, there are now worrying reports of a clampdown on media reporting of demonstrations against poorly constructed schools. This could well be at the instigation of local officials rather than Beijing, but the effect will nevertheless be the same. If Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao wish to stamp out corruption, they should encourage the exposure of the failings of local officials.

The Chinese government will only get things right when it does things by the law, unconditionally guarantees the rights of citizens set down in the constitution, and cracks down on those who break the law. The government needs to understand that in response to the western media, an independent and free Chinese press would be much more credible than a government spokesperson.

Whatever happens, the Beijing Olympics will provide many lessons for the Chinese leadership. If they are willing to learn, China’s leaders will be able to turn this would-be triumphal year’s early humiliation into a force for change.

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