The idea that the rights to subsistence and development are the first priority for people in China is a familiar one by now, since representatives of the Chinese government constantly repeat it at international events where human rights are on the agenda. The implication is that individual liberties, such as freedom of expression, association and information, are luxuries that the Chinese people cannot afford.
However, these freedoms can make the difference between life and death. And this is not just a shadow from Chinas past - the ghosts of the tens of millions who died in the famine caused by the combination of Mao Zedongs disastrous Great Leap Forward economic policies and the complete suppression of information - but a matter of current reality.
Because of lack of information, thousands of Henan farmers have become infected with HIV or are already suffering and dying from AIDS, a disease they hardly understand. Their neighbors understand it even less, and refuse to buy their vegetables or go near their villages. Years of selling blood in unsafe conditions have spread the disease widely in rural Henan and some other poor provinces, researchers say, but the local authorities want to cover up the possible epidemic this has caused to save their own face and protect their political future.
The people who want to expose the nature of this problem and let these farmers know about how HIV is transmitted and what to do to protect themselves against it have faced harassment, intimidation and loss of employment. A 73-year-old Henan doctor, Gao Yaojie, has received telephone death threats because she has tried to get the authorities to take action against the spread of HIV, and because of her work to inform people about the disease and help those suffering from AIDS.
While the central government is belatedly allowing more active programs of sex education and condom distribution, it has provided little funding for the campaign against HIV/AIDS. And, as Wan Yanhai writes, until very recently government agencies and mass organizations such as the All-China Womens Federation were much more willing to cooperate with institutions spreading disinformation about HIV/AIDS, than those truly working to contain its spread. Until mid-2000, the Ministry of Health was actually facilitating the promotion of the message of the Unification Church-sponsored International Education Foundation (IEF) that condoms are ineffective in preventing sexually-transmitted diseases. Although the government has now severed its direct sponsorship of IEF, the group still has an office in China and continues to put out its message there.
This favorable treatment contrasts starkly with the fate of many domestic activists. The group of long-term dissidents from Shandong Province who set up the New Culture Forum Web site earlier this year explicitly dedicated themselves to compromise and conciliation, as described in an article in this issue. They openly said that they were not in favor of setting up independent organizations, at least for the moment, attracting criticism from those in the democracy movement who are in favor of the establishment of opposition parties. They just wanted to promote discussion of democratic values and the need for a loyal opposition, they wrote. But their site was declared to be reactionary and closed down in August, and the authorities launched a manhunt for its putative sponsor, Xin Wenming.
Given such attitudes, the China Democracy Party (CDP) was clearly doomed from the start. For a brief moment in 1998, some commentators thought the Chinese leadership had finally adopted the virtue of political tolerance. But this was not the case, as Jan van der Made outlines. The retribution against CDP activists was swift and harsh: over 30 have now been sentenced to prison, some to terms of more than 10 years, and many have been sent to serve Reeducation Through Labor without even getting the chance to defend themselves in court.
The repression of independent voices has also spread to the field of literature: Bei Ling spent two terrible weeks in detention for having the temerity to promote a literary magazine, Tendency, not approved by the authorities. As we went to press, reports in Hong Kong said that Guangdong media had been forbidden to publish any writings by 11 prominent liberal intellectuals, including journalist He Qinglian, political theorist Liu Junning and economist Qin Hui.
And in Jiangsu, the leader of an independent union set up in the Funing Silk Factory, Cao Maobing, was locked up in a mental institution after workers at the plant tried to get official recognition for their organization. They were happy to join the official union federation, they said, they just wanted a union which would represent their interests, rather than one that didnt.
How long can the government continue to repress dissent and shut up critical voices? And at what cost?
It seems the legacy of Mao and his refusal to countenance opposition in any form lives on. The embalmed body in the crystal sarcophagus in Tiananmen Square is more than a vestige of the past. It remains a specter haunting the present....
In our last issue, Summer/Fall 2000, the person on the cover was not identified. The photo shows Ding Zilin standing beside the memorial in her home to her son, Jiang Jielian, who was murdered in the June Fourth massacre in 1989.