By CHARLES SNYDER
Washington – After years of finding nothing but fault with China’s human rights record, a major New York-based monitor said conditions had improved in the past year.
Human Rights Watch, in its “World Watch” report published yesterday, hinted there appeared to have been a basic change in Beijing’s policy towards Tibet.
The organisation found several instances in which the government exercised restraint in dealing with what in the past would have been targets of sometimes severe crackdowns.
The report credited this to the generational leadership change that took place last year at the 16th Communist Party Congress when Hu Jintao was named as general secretary, succeeding President Jiang Zemin. It was the first seamless leadership handover in the 54 year history of the People’s Republic of China.
That change, the report said, “coloured human rights practices in China in 2002. Concerned with maintaining economic and social stability as the transition unfolded, leaders in Beijing appeared to calculate carefully when to tread lightly and when to crack down hard”.
The assessment contrasted with last year’s report, when the rights group concluded: “The Chinese leadership’s preoccupation with stability in the face of continued economic and social upheaval fuelled an increase in human rights violations.”
In its latest report, Human Rights Watch noted several instances in which Beijing adopted moderate stances toward activities it would have previously suppressed.
The group cited Beijing’s response to the widespread upsurge in workers’ protests in the northeast, where “only minimum force” was applied to curb the demonstrations.
The authorities also “moderated the response to disclosures of their failure to tackle the HIV/Aids crisis”.
The report said the government expressed some willingness to co-operate with the World Psychiatric Association when China’s practice of holding political offenders in mental hospitals came to the world’s attention.
Among other positives, Human Rights Watch cited reforms to the legal system and moves to improve the professionalism of judicial personnel.
On Tibet, the report hinted at a potential major relaxation of Beijing’s hardline attitude towards the region.
“Chinese government permission for a ‘private’ visit to Tibet by personal representatives of the Dalai Lama and the release of several high-profile Tibetan prisoners before their terms expired opened a new chapter in China-Tibet relations,” the report said. “The change in policy may have indicated a greater Chinese readiness to form meaningful dialogue, or might have been meant to mute criticism from the international community and remove a potential barrier to foreign investment.”
Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch said “for Tibetans, little changed”, with continued pressure on Tibetan culture and religion.
The report also cataloged instances of political and religious persecution, highlighting moves to curb information exchanges through the Internet and news media, and the tough crackdown on the China Democracy Party and other sources of political dissent.
It added: “The Strike Hard campaign, ostensibly aimed at normal criminal offences, also targeted political dissent and non-sanctioned religious organisations . . . including the Falun Gong, which continues to be the target of a tough, unrelenting crackdown.”