By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
October 15, 2007
(CNSNews.com) - Chinese President Hu Jintao opened a key communist party gathering Monday with references to reform, openness and social harmony, but reports of rights violations persist and a spokesman reiterated that the rulers of the world's most populous country have no intention of following Western models of democracy.
Addressing a twice-a-decade national congress that establishes policy direction for the next five years, Hu called on the 73 million members of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to hold up the banner of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and strive to build "a moderately prosperous society."
Ahead of the opening of the 17th CPC Congress, spokesman Li Dongsheng told a press conference in Beijing the objective was to reform institutions and improve "socialist democracy."
"But we will never copy the Western political system model," he said.
Party congresses, which typically run for a week, are largely scripted affairs: Hu's keynote address Monday, for instance, had been distributed beforehand to thousands of leading figures for their comments before delivery on Monday, Li said.
Nonetheless, the meetings give China-watchers important clues as to CPC priorities, possible future leaders and the balance of power between factions. The 2,230-strong gathering elects a Central Committee of some 200 members and, the day after the congress ends, that body appoints a new top leadership for the next five years.
The congress is also expected to endorse a pre-approved amendment to the party's constitution, to include Hu's slogans of "scientific development" and a "harmonious society."
A recent CPC document explained that this refers to "people-centered" development being coordinated between China's urban and rural areas, among different regions, between man and nature, and between domestic development and opening up to the outside world.
The concepts will be added to others already in the constitution, including Marxism-Leninism and key theories introduced by party stalwarts Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.
Chinese media have been previewing the congress for weeks, and the People's Daily in an editorial Monday also highlighted the issues of "reform, opening up and building of a moderately prosperous society," saying great progress had been achieved in those areas in the past five years.
In the run-up to the congress, however, authorities carried out a clampdown on dissent in a bid to prevent disturbances from taking attention of the solemn event, according to human rights monitoring groups.
Among those detained are longtime democracy campaigners, human rights lawyers and other activists - as well as numerous "petitioners" who head for the capital from across the country during significant gatherings to lobby officials directly about grievances.
The group Human Rights in China (HRIC) reported on a number of typical cases, including that of a family who has clashed with authorities before over housing demolitions, and which has been forcibly removed from their home to another area. HRIC said police told the family to remain there for a month, and linked the order to the party congress.
In another recent case, a Beijing-based lawyer who has defended human rights campaigners, dissidents, church leaders and Falun Gong practitioners was abducted and assaulted for several hours by unidentified assailants who warned him to leave the capital with his family or face the consequences.
HRIC has organized an open letter to top security officials about the assault on Li Heping, signed by more than 110 lawyers and rights campaigners, urging an end to kidnapping and assault of lawyers and others, and calling for a safe environment in which lawyers can work.
HRIC executive director Sharon Hom said the harassment of rights campaigners and petitions undermined China's promises of greater openness and respect for citizens' rights ahead of next summer's Beijing Olympics.
Bob Fu, president of the Texas-based China Aid Association and a friend of Li's, earlier expressed concern about the incident.
"If China can't tolerate a moderate lawyer like Mr. Li, who should have any confidence in the Chinese leaders' other international commitments?" he asked.
Li visited Washington in 2005, when he met with lawmakers, State Department officials and others concerned about religious freedom in China.
Meanwhile in Brussels last week, critics of China in the European Parliament organized a press conference involving dissidents who spoke by phone from China. One of them, prominent activist Hu Jia, said through an interpreter that many thousands of dissidents had been removed from Beijing in advance of the congress.
As the congress begins Monday, a China-European Union human rights dialogue also gets underway in Beijing.
European Parliament vice-president Edward McMillan-Scott, a British Conservative euro-lawmaker who organized the press conference, said if the repression continues, the E.U. should press for the Olympics to be moved to a different host city.
The press conference discussed the case of Gao Zhisheng, a Christian human rights attorney under house arrest who disappeared from his home last month, shortly after he wrote an open letter to the U.S. Congress reporting rights abuses and saying that the CPC was using the hosting of the Olympics to gain legitimacy.
Willy Fautre, director of the Brussels-based group Human Rights Without Frontiers, told the event that world leaders should not accept invitations to visit for the Olympics while violations are continuing.
"The world should focus on the real China, in which hundreds of thousands are being repressed because of their religious faith or belief," he said.