Evolution of dissent
CBC News Online | March 10, 2005
The death of former Chinese Communist party chief Zhao Ziyang on Jan. 17, 2005, rekindled concerns among the party brass.
Zhao pioneered the economic reforms in the 1980s that paved the way for China's transformation into an economic powerhouse. But a decision to visit Tiananmen Square in May of 1989 led to his fall from power.
Thousands of students had occupied the square in a bid to persuade the government to ease its iron grip and allow democracy to take root. The government refused their demands.
On May 19, 1989 with tension clearly rising Zhao visited the protesters. He begged the students to leave.
A day later, the government declared martial law. Over the next two weeks, the government mulled its options. A decision was made to forcibly clear the protesters out of the square. It was a decision that Zhao opposed.
On the night of June 3-4, 1989, troops and tanks moved in as the world media watched. It's still unclear how many people died.
Zhao's opposition to the move ended his political career. He spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest in his Beijing courtyard home. His former colleagues shunned him.
State television and radio ignored his death. Mourners filed into the Zhao home, but plainclothes security forces turned many away. The only Western politician believed to have paid respects to the family was Conservative MP Jason Kenney, who was accompanying Prime Minister Paul Martin on a visit to China. Police let Kenney and a few reporters into the house but no pictures were allowed.
Kenney left a note, expressing his condolences.
"It's a testament to Zhao Ziyang that 15 years after his opposition to the massacre, the authorities are still afraid of him, that they won't permit open public expression of his death."
In Toronto, Cheuk Kwan, with the group Democracy in China, applauded Kenney's gesture.
"The Communist government is very afraid of publicizing and allowing open discussion of Zhao's death," Kwan told CBC News.
Martin had criticized Kenney, saying the visit was inappropriate. Kwan disagreed, saying the Chinese government respects and expects toughness.
"They want you to play tough," Kwan said. "So I don't think Martin should be worried about offending his hosts." On the other hand, Kwan applauded Martin for raising the cases of 10 jailed dissidents during his talks with Chinese leaders. Talk might not get them released, he said, but it shows the government that the world is watching.
"For China to move forward, it needs support of the international community."
Protests of the kind that brought down Zhao are illegal in China. Just picking up a bullhorn can land you in prison. But there are still protests according to police, there were 58,000 public protests in China in 2004.
The vast majority of today's protesters are not asking for political change. They're asking for justice.
A group of peasants say they were cheated in a land deal to make way for a hotel and homes for the rich.
The demolition of a popular Beijing market sparked one of the demonstrations officially noted in 2004. Stall owners accused developers and corrupt officials of working together to seize land and property for development.
"There's no democracy," one woman involved in the protest told CBC News. "They don't discuss things. They decide on demolition and just go right ahead. We have no freedom of speech, and the government doesn't discuss things with us, as it should. There should be democracy."
Wu Qing, a Beijing city councillor, says once a week constituents line up outside her office waiting for their turn to ask for help. She says many of them know more about their constitutional rights than the people at the top.
"They always come to me with facts as well as some of the laws that the court or the courts have abused. Little potatoes know more about the constitution and the law than people at the top because people at the top, they often think whatever they say is the law."
A woman carries a copy of the Chinese constitution during a protest over the demolition of a Beijing market.
She adds people with a grievance seem to know it's best to move within the framework, so they don't get into trouble.
Pa Na showed up at Wu Qing's office to try to get her to help with a housing problem.
"What we want is for our rights to be protected. We want fairness and justice. We don't care so much about being rich or poor. We want fairness and justice."
As China tears its cities apart and rebuilds them from the ground up in a relentless boom, it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be a Communist country. That's especially easy to forget on a visit to the Chateau Jiang Lafitte, a replica of a 17th-century French castle on the outskirts of Beijing.
It's being built by Jiang You Chen. Economic reform has made him part of a group of 10,000 Chinese worth more than $10 million. The chateau cost $50 million to build.
When it's done, it will be a hotel and will include homes for other rich people. Jiang was a senior official in the Beijing Construction Bureau before making his fortune as a property developer. He admits his connections helped make him rich.
"I think now China's gradually becoming more regulated. Connections are definitely useful, but now that land is auctioned on the open market it's impossible to get it through connections. You have to compete."
A complicated deal gave local villagers some compensation for the loss of a thousand hectares of farmland, but many feel they've been cheated. They say the best time of their lives was after 1949 when the Communist party gave landless peasants like them a piece of land to farm. Now they're landless again.
"It all belongs to the castle," one woman told CBC News. "The whole village was sold. They said villagers would be shareholders. We don't understand this policy at all. Peasants don't have a penny. How can we be shareholders? We have no money and they say we are shareholders."
Economic reform has created many winners, but some of the Communist party's staunchest supporters say they now feel like losers. What they want is a fair deal.
"If the state takes the land, that's no problem," one man told CBC News. "We have no objection, but this is for capitalist entertainment."
While most who protest 15 years after Tiananmen Square want their rights, the Chinese government continues to deal harshly with those it sees as enemies of the government.
In February 2003, China convicted a dissident on charges of terrorism for the first time. Wang Bingzhang a long-time resident of the United States was sentenced to life in prison after he was convicted of plotting to blow up the Chinese Embassy in Thailand as well as roads and bridges in China. No evidence was ever made public to back the allegations.
Washington expressed its concern at the time, saying the "war on terrorism" could not be misused to repress legitimate political grievances or dissent. American concerns were not enough to get Wang released.
The organization Human Rights Watch says China has made some progress in recent years, but adds that the government has made it clear that China is and will remain a one-party state.
The group notes the Communist party's 2004 promise to uphold the rule of law "has been compromised by continuing widespread official corruption, party interference in the justice system, and a culture of impunity for officials and their families."
China amended its constitution in March 2004 to include a promise to ensure human rights. Human Rights Watch says, "the constitution is not directly enforceable in China, [but] the amendment signals a growing acknowledgement of human rights."
It may also explain why more of today's protesters show up at demonstrations well versed on their constitutional rights.