Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 1, 2008; 1:08 PM
BEIJING, July 1 -- A group of Chinese human rights lawyers were detained and later put under house arrest by government security officials to prevent them from attending a dinner Sunday hosted by two members of the U.S. Congress.
The incident is the latest in a series of moves Chinese officials have made to clamp down on dissent in the run-up to the Summer Olympic Games, which open Aug. 8 in Beijing.
"The actions show an unhealthy brazenness in regards to human rights," Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview Tuesday.
Smith and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) had invited several dissident lawyers to meet with them Sunday night, but then learned that police took two lawyers from their homes that afternoon, drove them to a Beijing suburb and barred them from returning to the city. Police blocked another invitee from leaving his apartment complex and either warned or barred at least six other lawyers from attending, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an advocacy group.
"China has regressed," fumed Wolf in an interview Tuesday. "There has been absolutely, positively no progress" on human rights. At least three of the lawyers and one pastor, who was able to attend the dinner, are now under house arrest, Wolf said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao criticized the congressmen for not respecting China's laws and regulations, but then refused to discuss what law prevented foreign officials from meeting with Chinese citizens.
"The two U.S. congressmen came to China as guests of the United States Embassy to engage in internal communications and consultations," Liu told reporters in a regularly scheduled news conference Tuesday. "They should not engage in activities incompatible with the objective of their visit and with their status."
On the same evening Wolf and Smith were supposed to dine with the activist lawyers, the visiting secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, hailed renewal of the U.S.-China human rights dialogue on May 26 as a step forward in improving China's human rights record. Rice, who later that evening dined with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, told reporters Sunday she was reminding him that the United States considers human rights an important issue and would continue to make it a part of the increasingly close U.S.-China relationship.
Yang, at an upbeat Sunday news conference with Rice, said China also regarded resumption of the human rights dialogue as a sign of progress and expressed willingness to continue human rights discussions with the United States and other nations "on a basis of mutual respect."
Neither he nor Rice mentioned the lawyers who were being prevented from seeing Wolf and Smith. At that time, the details of the disrupted dinner were not widely known; it is unclear whether Yang was aware of them.
But the simultaneous comments from him and Rice drew attention to the frequently wide gap between what Chinese security forces do to quash dissent and what the Foreign Ministry and other public parts of the government tell foreign visitors about rule by law and human rights improvements.
The Chinese security apparatus, for instance, has tightened controls considerably in the lead up to the Olympics. The Public Security Bureau has expressed concern that Islamic terrorists, perhaps Uighur separatists from the far-western Xinjiang region, could try to mount a spectacular attack in Beijing during the games. In addition, security organs have stepped up restrictions on known dissidents and human rights activists, blocking them from expressing their views or preventing them from coming to Beijing if they live in other cities.
On Tuesday, a Chinese court sentenced a reporter for a U.S.-based online news site to four years in prison on charges of illegal weapons possessions and public disorder. Sun Lin, a reporter who used the pen name Jie Mu, regularly wrote on sensitive topics such as crime and police brutality for the Chinese-language site Boxun.
"We defended Sun Lin as innocent and we certainly did not agree with the verdict," his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, told the Associated Press. Boxun posted an article that said the charges were trumped up by Chinese officials to silence his reporting.
Attempts to telephone several of the lawyers invited to Sunday's dinner were unsuccessful Tuesday; in some cases, the calls went unanswered, and in some cases, the calls did not go through. One of the invitees who was contacted, Li Fangping, said three police officers came to his house on Sunday and prevented him from attending the dinner. The officers followed him wherever he went, continuing to do so through Tuesday evening, Li said.
"I heard that after the Congress members board their plane, then they will stop following me," Li said. "I can't see the reason why they are doing this."
Another invitee, lawyer Li Heping, said preventing the meeting would likely only worsen China's image. "Restraining the delegation's guests only shows how backwards the human rights situation is, as backward as North Korea's. Is that what they want?," he asked.
Smith said he and Wolf decided to travel to Beijing now, when there was still time before the Olympics for China to demonstrate its commitment to human rights. Their goal was to convince China to free some jailed dissidents before the Games begin. They presented a list of 734 political prisoners to Li Zhaoxing, China's former foreign minister who now chairs the foreign affairs committee of the National People's Congress, and appealed to him to work for their release.
"These dialogues are fine as long as they are not just public relations efforts," Smith said. "China has to have deeds to match its words."
Liu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said he had not seen the list, but that presenting it was "not consistent with the purpose of their visit."
Wolf said he urged the U.S. Embassy to move human rights issues to a higher priority. He said the embassy has between 20 and 30 officials in its commercial section but only one U.S. official based in Beijing to handle human rights.