News & Current Affairs

January 12, 2009

China aims to silence reform call

China aims to silence reform call

Shoppers in Chinese city of Shanghai

China’s economy has liberalised, but its political system has not

Chinese lawyers, dissidents and academics who signed a document calling for political reform are being harassed by the authorities.

Signatories to the Charter 08 document have been detained, questioned by the police and put under pressure at work.

The charter calls for a radical overhaul of China’s political system by introducing elections, a new constitution and an independent judiciary.

Despite 30 years of economic reforms, China’s political system has hardly changed in that time.

And the authorities’ reaction to this latest call for reform suggests the country’s leaders still have no appetite for political reforms.

House arrest

Charter 08 was published last month on the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

December also marked three decades since China began reforms that have transformed the economy and the country’s fortunes.

But even before the document was published, the police started visiting some of the 300 or so original signatories.

Writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo is believed to be under a form of house arrest at an undisclosed location in Beijing.

CHARTER 08
New constitution
Legislative democracy
Judicial independence
Freedom to assemble

The authorities have yet to state publicly why the 53-year-old has been detained.

He is believed to be the only signatory being held by the police, but others have experienced other kinds of harassment.

Police went to journalist Li Datong’s work unit to look for him. He was not there, but now he knows the authorities are watching him.

Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong has been taken in for questioning four times since the document was published.

Speaking out

Li Boguang, another lawyer, was invited to meet with a Chinese security official at a Beijing coffee shop, where for more than an hour he had to explain why he had added his name to the charter.

“The official didn’t say anything. He just listened to my reason and then left. This is how they operate,” he said.

I am willing to pay any price for this
Xu Youyu, Charter 08 signatory

China usually metes out severe treatment to anyone who criticises the system, but Mr Li said he still thinks it was right to sign the charter.

“Change requires ordinary citizens, particularly intellectuals, to speak out. This will slowly influence the government,” he said.

Another signatory, academic Xu Youyu, experienced a different kind of pressure.

Mr Xu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was told by his boss that signing the document broke Chinese laws.

“I told him that was nonsense. That’s absolutely not the case,” the expert in Western philosophy told us.

Liu Xiaobo (file image courtesy of Reporters Without Borders)

Liu Xiaobo is in detention at an undisclosed location

He was then asked to retract his signature, which he refused to do. “I am willing to pay any price for this,” he added – even going to prison.

Mr Xu has also been told that he will not now be allowed to write the forward to the book of a colleague.

“The publishers received an order from the centre saying that everybody who signed their name to the charter had lost their qualification to publish any article or any book,” he said.

The document that appears to be causing so much concern among senior Chinese leaders is one of the most important published in several years.

It was based on Charter 77, which in 1977 called for respect for human and civil rights in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Property rights

Charter 08 says the Chinese government’s approach to modernisation has been “disastrous”.

It “deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity,” the document says.

It calls for a political system that guarantees human rights, freedom of expression and protection for private property.

It has also stirred interest abroad. Several Nobel laureates, among others, have written to Chinese President Hu Jintao asking him to release Liu Xiaobo.

China’s leaders are saying little about Charter 08 – or the detention of Mr Liu.

But President Hu made it clear in a speech to mark the 30th anniversary of the country’s reforms that China would not adopt Western-style democracy.

Willy Lam, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said China’s leaders are nervous about calls for political change.

This nervousness has increased with the country’s economic problems, which could create a restless population receptive to calls for political change.

Mr Liu’s detention is a case of “killing the chicken to scare the monkey”, according to Mr Lam.

This is a Chinese idiom that suggests making an example of one person to keep others in line.

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September 13, 2008

Blogger’s detention sparks fears

Blogger’s detention sparks fears

Malaysiakini)

Raja Petra’s website was temporarily closed before his arrest

Late on Tuesday night, I spoke to Raja Petra Kamarudin. We were supposed to meet face-to-face earlier in the day, but Malaysia’s most vociferous anti-government campaigner could not make it. He was in hiding.

Three days later, he was detained.

The ostensible reason for the blogger’s arrest was that he published a blasphemous article about Islam on his website, Malaysia Today. In the predominantly Muslim country, such an offense can carry a jail sentence.

But several weeks ago, the campaigner had also made allegations against one of Malaysia’s most powerful men, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Mr Petra suggested the minister may have been involved in the 2007 murder of a Mongolian model. Mr Najib denied any involvement.

Shortly afterwards, the government ordered internet service providers to block access to Malaysia Today. The ban was lifted the day before Mr Petra was arrested.

Internet crackdown?

As Malaysia strives to keep pace with Asia’s fastest-growing economies, the internet is flourishing: Kuala Lumpur offers citywide wireless access and high-speed connections are being rolled out across the country.

The influence of online news sites and bloggers – who are often critical of the government – is growing exponentially.

Anwar Ibrahim – the charismatic opposition leader being touted as a future prime minister despite being mired in decade-old sodomy allegations – has detailed every stage of his political rehabilitation on his own website: anwaribrahimblog.com.

Although there is tight regulation of traditional media in Malaysia, with newspapers requiring an annual licence from the government to publish, there have been no such restrictions online. So far.

But Mr Petra’s arrest is being seen by some as evidence that the online free-for-all is about to end. Within hours of his detention, an ethnic Chinese journalist was reportedly arrested. A wider crackdown is feared.

Racial harmony

During our interview on Tuesday, Mr Petra told me he wanted “to be available to help in the dissemination of information that is going to be greatly required” for the next 10 days.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at a press conference in Permatang Pauh (25/08/2008)

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim updates a regular blog

The period he was referring to is crucial for the government: Malaysia’s resurgent opposition has promised to bring down the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by 16 September – the date of Malaysia’s anniversary.

It is an ambitious, and perhaps overly-optimistic, pledge. But the opposition has been gathering momentum since it made historic gains in March’s general election.

The government, meanwhile, is embroiled in internal fighting, some of which is due to the growing influence of independent websites like Malaysia Today.

The government remains adamant there is no crackdown. Just days before Mr Petra’s arrest, Home Minister Syed Hamid told me the temporary closure of Malaysia Today was merely a “cautious” step.

He emphasized the government had to maintain stability and peace among the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities that make up modern day Malaysia.

But fears are growing among some that there is going to be a repeat of a famous clampdown the government ordered 20 years ago.

Two further arrests have been made overnight. An opposition politician and a journalist who works for a Chinese language newspaper have both been detained under the internal security act.

Backs to the firewall?

Mr Petra has rejected the implication Malaysia Today sowed discord, arguing that the site’s main theme was one of racial harmony.

I think the Pandora’s box has opened… The government is going back on its word
Raja Petra

“What Syed Hamid is accusing us of, it is them who are doing it, not us,” he told me during our interview.

“I think the Pandora’s box has opened. The government started off by guaranteeing freedom of the internet – no censorship, no restrictions. Now the government is going back on its word.”

Jeff Ooi, a blogger and opposition MP, said the government’s temporary closure of Malaysia Today was an infringement of Malaysia’s cyber laws, and hinted it could be the start of something more sinister.

“I do not know whether Malaysia is following the footsteps of China,” he said, referring to the firewall that blocks access to sites deemed inappropriate by the Communist authorities in Beijing.

“If that is the case, then Malaysia is regressing.”

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