Lucy Popescu

Zhang Jianhong

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, campaign groups are preparing to increase the pressure on the host country to release prisoners of conscience and clean up its human rights record. As China’s international political and economic strength intensifies, freedom of expression continues to suffer, with the authorities restricting the work of the media and non-governmental organisations, while implementing even stricter controls on the Internet. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), conditions deteriorated significantly in 2006: ‘Several high-profile, politically-motivated prosecutions of lawyers and journalists in 2006 put an end to any hopes that President Hu Jintao would be a progressive reformer and sent an unambiguous warning to individuals and groups pressing for greater respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of Chinese citizens.’

Over here we can write freely about the pros and cons of Britain’s hosting the Games in 2012, but prominent Chinese writer Zhang Jianhong (aka Li Hong) has recently been jailed for referring to Beijing’s intention to host the Olympics as ‘a scandal’, whilst criticising China’s human rights record.

On 19 March 2007, 48-year-old Zhang was sentenced to six years in prison on subversion charges for articles calling for political reform in China that he posted online between May and September 2006. According to PEN, the writer has been detained since his arrest on 6 September 2006, when more than twenty police officers searched his home in Ningbo. His computers were confiscated and his wife was also interrogated. Zhang was formally charged on 12 October 2006 and was finally convicted of subversion by a court in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, eastern China in March, for ‘defaming the Chinese government’ and ‘inciting subversion’.

‘This verdict is sadly yet another example of the judicial system being used by the political authorities,’ Reporters without Borders said. ‘It is outrageous that cyber-dissidents get severe prison sentences just for the views they express. Yet again, they are being made to pay a heavy price for their commitment.’ Although Zhang intends to appeal his sentence, it is unlikely that he will be acquitted. Apparently, after handing down the six-year prison sentence, the court claimed that it was showing clemency because the defendant expressed remorse during the trial.

HRW refers to China’s Internet restrictions as the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and points to a recent crackdown that is justified by Premier Wen Jiabao as ‘necessary’ in order ‘to safeguard national, social and collective interests’. Similar restrictions apply to books, newspapers, magazines, television, radio and film. In the last year the Chinese government has stepped up its campaign against freedom of expression on the Internet and ‘moved aggressively to plug the wall’s holes and to punish transgressors’. The authorities employ a vast police and state security apparatus that enables them to enforce multiple layers of control on critics, protesters and civil society activists. HRW condemns the system, which includes ‘tapping and surveillance of phone and Internet communications, visits and summons by the police, close surveillance by plainclothes agents, unofficial house-arrests, incommunicado confinement in distant police-run guest houses, and custody in police stations’.

The organisation documents cases similar to that of Zhang, involving journalists, bloggers, webmasters, writers, and editors, who risk prison sentences every time they send news out of China or merely debate politically sensitive ideas among themselves: ‘Censors use sophisticated filters, blocking, and Internet police to limit incoming information … Many cases come to trial charged with vaguely defined crimes such as “disrupting social order”, “leaking state secrets”, or “inciting subversion”.’

A member of the independent Chinese PEN centre, Zhang was previously imprisoned from 1989 to 1991 for his pro-democracy activities. In August 2005 he founded the literary and news website Aiqinhai (or ‘Aegean Sea’ – http://www.aiqinhai.org), serving as editor-in-chief until it was banned by the authorities in March 2006. He was also a regular contributor to the overseas Chinese sites Boxun (http://www.boxun.com) and the Epoch Times (http://www.dajiyuan.com).

It is also reported that his six-year term is to be followed by one year’s deprivation of political rights. Zhang’s lawyer, Li Jianqiang, believes his severe sentence is partly in retribution for being mentioned in the US State Department’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices released just before Zhang’s sentencing. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists speculate that the editor may be suffering repercussions from another posting where he reported on allegations that the Chinese government illegally procured organs from living prisoners. Whatever the real reasons behind his lengthy prison sentence, Zhang is known for his fearless journalism, having often published articles depicting fraud and corruption and criticising the Chinese Communist Party, and his imprisonment follows a pattern of harassment of dissidents routinely observed by human rights organisations.

Readers may like to send appeals protesting against the detention of Zhang Jianhong (aka Li Hong), and calling for his immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory. Seek assurances that he is treated humanely and urge the authorities to grant him full access to his family, lawyers and any necessary medical care:

His Excellency Hu Jintao
President of the People’s Republic of China
c/o Her Excellency Madam Fu Ying
Chinese Embassy
49-51 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 0207 636 2981

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