Next summer's Olympics will showcase a China of glittering skyscrapers and overstuffed store shelves. But the government responsible for this economic miracle continues to imprison political activists, restrict religious freedom, tightly control the media and Internet, and protect its citizens only haphazardly from pollution and unsafe food and consumer products, a congressional panel reported Friday.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China credited Communist Party leaders with increasing legal protections for those who abstain from unauthorized political and religious activities, but noted the safeguards are selectively enforced. "Against persons the Party deems to pose a threat to its supremacy, officials wield the legal system as a harsh and deliberately unpredictable weapon," the panel concluded in its annual report on the state of human rights and rule of law in China.
With the Games seen as a mark of its arrival, Beijing is under pressure from foreign activists to comply with international standards from the workplace to air quality. Friday’s report added leverage for human rights reforms because of the official U.S. imprimatur: the CECC consists of nine Senators, nine House members and five senior Administration officials appointed by the President.
The commission veered from its central focus to such recent issues as food and product safety, which also affects foreign consumers of Chinese exports. The report praised Beijing for reforms, but complained of "inadequate and inconsistent implementation, corruption and a lack of regulatory incentives." Worse, the government discouraged consumer organizations and harassed people for reporting problems with consumer products. Likewise, environmental reforms have been hampered by uncooperative local authorities and official suppression of green activists and the free flow of information, the report said.
Human rights came in for the toughest criticism. Despite a 2005 pledge to "provide relief" for its political prisoners, Beijing continued to detain and imprison democracy activists as well as those attempting to organize workers in labor unions not approved by the government. Police routinely detain people for days without formal charge or more justification than to avoid protests or "social unrest," it said.
A database set up by the commission to monitor political and religious prisoners numbered 4,060 cases as of September.
The past year saw a tightening of the screws on religion, the report said, with Beijing continuing its "campaign of persecution" against the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Protestant church gatherings that didn't register with the government were shut down, and Catholics blocked from contact with the Vatican. Independent clergy were detained and coerced.
Tibetan Buddhists faced greater repression in recent months, said the report, as authorities continued to detain and imprison Tibetans for peaceful expression and nonviolent action at least 100 such cases were identified.
The commission underlined the importance of free expression in an ever-shrinking world beset by contagious diseases and globalized trade. In China, however, the media are muzzled by officials seeking to protect themselves, the report said. Even though foreign reporters were granted greater freedoms to host the Olympics, Beijing has increased government restrictions on domestic journalists in the interest of preserving order and control before a party congress this month. "Developments during 2007 suggests that the prospects for a free press in China remain dim," it said.
The Internet has threatened the Party’s monopoly of information, a threat it has blunted with requirements for all websites to be licensed, curbs on politically sensitive data and arrests of online government critics. Beijing continues to impose prior restraints on publishing, banning certain books and publications prior to the party congress.
Senator Byron L. Dorgan, the commission’s chairman, said the 360-page study was "sober reading," a sign that repression was getting worse in China, despite promises of reform. He called the report a "wake-up call" to Washington decision-makers. The Chinese Embassy in Washington was called for a comment, but officials did not respond to it.