News and Views on Tibet

In no mood for dissent

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China has sentenced a dissident to life in prison for alleged terrorist offences. Is the government in Beijing using the war on terror as an excuse to lock up and execute awkward political opponents?

FOR the first time, China has sentenced a dissident on charges of terrorism. Wang Bingzhang, a longtime resident of the United States, was jailed for life for allegedly plotting to blow up the Chinese embassy in Thailand as well as roads and bridges in China itself. No evidence has been made public to back these allegations, which has fuelled suspicions that China is using the world’s preoccupation with terror to settle scores with the Communist Party’s opponents. America has expressed “deep concern” over China’s handling of Mr Wang’s case, telling it that “the war on terrorism must not be misused to repress legitimate political grievances or dissent.”

Mr Wang’s sentencing came two weeks after a Tibetan man, Lobsang Dhondup, was executed in connection with a series of bombings in the south-western province of Sichuan. A senior Tibetan monk, Tenzin Delek, was also given a death sentence for his alleged involvement in the bombings, but the execution was deferred for two years. If he behaves well, the sentence could be commuted to life in prison. Both Tibetans were labelled by the Chinese media as terrorists. Yet the only evidence cited was an alleged confession by the executed man. In this case too, America voiced its “deep concern”.

Although occasional acts of politically motivated violence have been reported for many years in China, mostly in the restive border region of Xinjiang and occasionally in Tibet, it was only after the September 11th attacks in America that China began to portray terrorism as a significant law-and-order problem within its borders. Last Saturday, the deputy commander-in-chief of China’s military, General Xiong Guangkai, told a conference in Munich that China was “one of the victims of terrorism”, asserting that activists campaigning for a separate state in Xinjiang had launched more than 260 “terrorist” attacks since 1990, killing 170 people. He repeated the assertions made by Chinese officials after September 11th that al-Qaeda had helped to train Xinjiang militants.

Human-rights groups abroad have accused China of using this perceived terrorist threat to launch a sweeping crackdown on pro-independence sympathisers in Xinjiang. Followers of Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist spiritual movement outlawed in China, also complain about attempts by Chinese officials to tar their largely peaceful organisation with the terrorist brush following the September 11th attacks. In its recently published annual survey of social trends, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said (strangely inconsistently with the tenor of allegations made by General Xiong and other officials) that terrorism had not been a serious problem in the past few years. But it added that as a result of “the changing situation at home and abroad”, there was an urgent need to prevent and suppress such activities “in a systematic manner”.

The secrecy surrounding China’s judicial process, particularly in cases involving anti-government activity, makes it extremely difficult to disprove any specific allegations of terrorist activity. But the circumstances of Mr Wang’s arrest and trial are certainly odd. He was reported missing in June while visiting Vietnam with two other dissidents. Police in southern China said they found them the following month in a temple where they had been taken by kidnappers demanding a ransom. Friends of Mr Wang say the three were in fact abducted from Vietnam by Chinese agents. Mr Wang’s two companions were later cleared of involvement in his alleged offences, which include leading a terrorist group since 1996 and spying for Taiwan.

Curiously, the Chinese authorities passed up an opportunity to jail Mr Wang in January 1998 when he was caught after slipping into China using a false passport to help set up an underground opposition group. In an apparent effort to appease America, the Chinese expelled him the following month. But the context of the China-America relationship has changed considerably since Mr Wang’s last arrest. In early 1998, China was looking forward to a visit that summer by President Bill Clinton, the first to China by an American leader since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The Chinese knew that restoring normal top-level contact between the two countries required making some concessions on human rights. The Chinese still release the odd dissident (a veteran activist, Xu Wenli, was expelled to America in December) but now the country feels far more confident about the relationship, particularly as a result of America’s preoccupation with international terrorism.

For all their expressions of concern about the treatment of Mr Wang and the two Tibetans, the Americans are not about to let their disdain for China’s human-rights record get in the way of bigger strategic goals. Indeed, the Americans last year gave China unusual moral support by successfully pushing to have a little-known separatist group in China, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, registered in the United Nations as a terrorist organisation. China is potentially a key player in efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis in North Korea, its neighbour and ally. America also wants China’s support in dealing with Iraq. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China could block efforts to pass another resolution authorising the use of force against Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Neither is China in any mood to ease up on dissidents. The country is still in a period of leadership transition following a Communist Party congress last November at which most of the older members of the politburo retired. The annual session of the country’s parliament in March will see further wide-ranging changes. China’s recent history shows that going soft on dissent can be politically suicidal for any newly promoted leader. Officials recently announced plans to introduce greater checks and balances between the party, the executive and the legislature in Shenzhen (which borders on Hong Kong and is, ironically, the place where Mr Wang was sentenced). But at a time of growing official anxiety about the impact of economic reform on social stability, no leader would be bold enough to tolerate any open challenge to the party itself.

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