We are reminded today that in some places in the world, systemic torture of political and criminal detainees is the norm, not the exception. The United Nations Committee on Torture today released its report documenting that in China, convictions in court are often obtained as a result of forced confessions.
China, as thousands of American tourists know, has come a long way from the days of Chairman Mao. Visitors encounter a thriving economy, a population far more prosperous and upwardly mobile than was the case a mere twenty years ago, and cities comparable in energy and size to the greatest in our own country.
Yet, in the ways of law and legality, China is apparently still operating according to the norms established decades ago in the Maoist realm. The current regime still practices “reeducation” through labor; an Orwellian term for harsh punishment for one’s ideas until repentance and cessation of dissident ideas is accepted.
The current generation of young Chinese, responding to the regime’s nationalist tilt, has largely abandoned the brief democratic renaissance that broke out in the days of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. If you travel to China and speak to college students, as I did, you will most often find a chorus of uniform rants against Taiwan, and various expressions of strong nationalist feelings about China taking its rightful place in the world against old imperialist exploiters. Rarely do you find anyone talking about the need for democracy or political reform. It will come, some will tell you, but in many decades.
So the reality, as The New York Times reports, is that repression of human rights advocates before the Olympic games has continued unabated. The few who do speak out are indeed brave. People who dared sign a petition simply saying “We Want Human Rights, Not Olympics” were tortured, imprisoned and sent to the labor reeducation centers. Evidently, the government fears that allowing any expression of opinion is so dangerous that it might open the floodgates. One professor, the paper reports, was arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” for trying to establish a new independent political party. Another man was arrested for “slandering” the Communist Party.
All this reminds one of the old Soviet era jokes in Russia. As Brezhnev was speaking, one man in the audience yelled out “shut up, you stupid idiot.” He was immediately arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison- 5 for slandering the nation’s leader and 15 for revealing state secrets.
To China’s victims, it is not funny at all. Chen Daojun was convicted because as an environmentalist, he was disturbed about a new petrochemical plant being built in Chengdu. His wife was distraught. She did not understand what he had done wrong. “He was only describing the way society is,” she said. And that is the awful reality: in China today, telling the truth is still a criminal activity.