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From the Editor

January 30, 2001

Over the last two decades, a handful of cases in which individuals have been incarcerated in psychiatric institutions for their political views have become known outside China. It was generally assumed that these were aberrations, where local officials were exceeding their powers, and that China had avoided the systematic abuse of psychiatry to imprison its critics, which in the Soviet Union became one of the main issues of contention between Moscow and human rights campaigners in the 1970s and 1980s.

But by delving into the arcane literature of professional forensic psychiatry in China, Robin Munro has shown that this assumption was wrong. His research shows that the confinement of political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals is a systematic and officially-sanctioned practice. Its current extent is unknown, but references to “political cases” have continued in this literature throughout the 1990s.

This is yet another reminder that many of the rights violations occurring in China are a direct result of abusive laws, policies and practices, in other words, they are intentional and sanctioned by the Chinese state.

A set of articles in this issue examining questions of history highlights this. As Marie Holzman points out in her overview of the use of repression in China in the last 50 years, repression is a tool that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always used, and uses still, when it determines that this is “necessary.” Since the purpose of repression is frequently educative - in other words, intended to send a message to others besides the repressed - the targets, in a sense matter little.

This may be a clue in considering the puzzling cases of the detentions of a number of academics of mainland Chinese origin by the State Security authorities, that were coming to light as this issue went to press. Why Gao Zhan? People wonder. Why Li Shaomin? But perhaps the more important question to ask is: what message is this intended to send? Gao and Li and their fellows are the unfortunate victims of an arbitrary system which continues to pick out targets for its purposes, when and if it deems this to be necessary, using laws that are written in an intentionally vague and broad manner.

The trial arguments of Jiang Qisheng and his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, translated in this issue, demonstrate this logic at work. Jiang and Mo eloquently demolish the prosecution’s case, showing that Jiang’s efforts to encourage people to remember the victims of the June Fourth massacre and understand the true nature of this event did not, in any reasonable sense, constitute the crime of incitement to subvert state power. But Jiang was convicted anyway, and is now serving a four-year prison term. The real reason behind his conviction is probably an effort to intimidate those struggling to gather the facts about 1989, particularly the Tiananmen Mothers, with whom Jiang worked closely.

As Jeremy Paltiel shows in an examination of the implications of The Tiananmen Papers, the refusal to drop the official lies about this piece of recent history is bound up with the nature of the post-1989 order. The central element of this is economic reform combined with an iron fist towards all efforts to organize independently of the CCP, with the key focus being ensuring the Party’s survival.

This principle was in evidence in the reservation entered when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee took the welcome and long-overdue step at the end of February of ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, one of the two binding treaties that make up the International Bill of Rights. The NPC refused to accept the right to form and join the trade union of one’s choice, a right at the very heart of the international system of labor standards.

This theme is another topic taken up in this edition. The lack of freedom of association for workers is not only a cause of enormous friction in Chinese society at a time of massive economic restructuring, but also a major irritant in official China’s relations with bodies such as the International Labor Organization (ILO). It also presents a thorny problem for the international trade union movement.

China Labour Bulletin argues that unionists who call for establishing fraternal relations with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the official “yellow” union, should be mindful of the experience of independent unionists in the Soviet Union, who felt that support for government unions undermined their position. Picking up Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s suggestion to use China’s own history more creatively to support change, more could be made of the irony of how the current government’s suppression of worker activists compares with the “White Terror” communist labor organizers faced from the Nationalists in the 1920s and 1930s.

The lessons of history have great resonance in Chinese culture. The struggles of those, like Jiang Qisheng and the labor activists, who seek to break vicious cycles of history deserve more support from the international community.

Sophia Woodman


In the last issue, “A strange love affair: Chinese authorities embrace the Unification Church’s teachings on sexuality,” by Wan Yanhai, mistakenly stated that the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) encouraged people to contribute to the Church-controlled International Education Foundation (IEF). In fact, the ACWF circular encouraged people to apply for funding from IEF.

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