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Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.
Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.

Frank Ching

Yes, Chinese have rights - in theory Add to ...

In many ways, China's constitution is a marvellous document. It guarantees Chinese citizens a host of rights, including "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." The problem is, they exist only in theory.

The latest human-rights report on China released by the U.S. State Department shows just how far removed from reality these rights are. It talks about extrajudicial killings, executions without due process, torture and coerced confessions and the use of forced labour. What's most depressing is the realization these things go on even though they're contrary to the constitution and the law that the government is supposed to uphold.

Take, for instance, the detention of a suspect. Under Chinese law, most suspects have the right to seek legal counsel shortly after their detention and interrogation. In reality, though, as the human-rights report says, "police frequently interfered with this right."

But let's say the suspect is lucky and gets to choose a lawyer. What if the lawyer isn't allowed to accept the case? Lawyers, after all, have been warned away from sensitive cases on pain of punishment.

Well, suppose the suspect gets the lawyer of his choice and the case goes to court. The law says courts exercise judicial power independently. But, in reality, we learn, "the judiciary was not independent" and received policy guidance from both the government and the Communist Party.

One example of blatant intervention last year was the trial of Tan Zuoren, who was charged with defaming the party. He had tried to collect the names of students who died in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. On the day of his trial, "police blocked persons who tried to attend the proceedings." Someone who'd travelled to Chengdu from Beijing to testify on Mr. Tan's behalf was beaten by security forces, who "prevented him from leaving his hotel room until the trial had adjourned."

In theory, Chinese law continues to protect individuals even after conviction. Thus, we are told that "the law prohibits the physical abuse of detainees and forbids prison guards from insulting prisoners' dignity and beating or encouraging others to beat prisoners."

The reality is quite different. "In January, Lin Guoqiang died suddenly while in custody at the Fuqing detention centre in Fujian Province," the report says. "His family claimed that his body was swollen and covered with bruises." In another case, a Uighur, Shohret Tursun, was detained during the July 5 riots. "In September, police returned his disfigured body to family members and ordered them to bury him," says the report. "The family refused to do so without an explanation of his death. On Sept. 20, the police surrounded the family home and forced the family to bury the body."

The two most egregious cases of the year were those of Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng. Mr. Liu, who drafted a document, Charter 08, calling for human rights and democracy, was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Mr. Gao, a lawyer, was picked up by police in February and has since vanished.

Ironically, despite the large number of political cases, the government denies there are any political prisoners. A white paper on human rights issued by the government in 2002 maintains that "ideas alone, in the absence of action which violates the criminal law, do not constitute a crime; nobody will be sentenced to punishment merely because he holds dissenting political views."

That is to say, if you disagree with the Communist Party and don't make it known, you haven't committed a crime. Even if you write your thoughts in your diary, it's not a crime. But if you show your diary to another person or somehow make your thoughts known to other people, that would constitute action and could land you in prison, where, of course, your rights will be fully protected. At least in theory.

Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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