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China uses heavy hand even with its gadflies

An international debate has arisen over what place China's human rights record should have in the Beijing Summer Olympics.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Zheng Enchong is a self-taught lawyer and a dogged human rights activist. In many countries, he would be considered a gadfly. But in China during this Olympic year, he is treated like a threat to national security.

One police surveillance camera tapes whoever enters or leaves his Shanghai apartment. Another monitors whoever presses the elevator button. A third records people in the building's elevator.

Lest the cameras prove unreliable, plainclothes police officers lounge in one corner of Zheng's landing through the day, smoking, sipping tea and playing cards.

‘That's the way things are for me’
Often, Zheng said, they prevent him from leaving his building. When he tried in February to go out to buy dumplings, the guards beat him up. In recent months, he said, they have been allowing him to attend church most Sunday mornings. But sometimes not. He never knows exactly why.

"That's the way things are for me," the round-faced lawyer said in an interview, smiling haplessly as if embarrassed by his fate. "It's been going on for the last two years."

As Beijing prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games in August, the grinding controls imposed by the Chinese government on Zheng and other civil rights activists over the last decade are coming under growing scrutiny abroad.

China's security forces have extensive experience and little legal restriction in suppressing dissent. But domestic challenges to Communist Party rule are playing out today within a rising international debate over what place China's human rights record should have in the Olympics.

The Chinese government insists that the Games should have nothing to do with politics. Foreign activists, however, argue that the desire to celebrate athletic achievement should not be a reason for the world to ignore the dark side of Chinese policies.

President Bush, aligning with China's rulers, disagrees. He plans to attend the opening extravaganza Aug. 8. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has taken a similar position.

Swelling concern
But since rioting erupted in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, on March 14, international concern has swelled, in particular over the fate of Tibetans. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France responded by saying a boycott of the Olympics opening ceremony is worth considering. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced she is staying away. As part of her presidential campaign, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) suggested Monday that Bush should follow suit, citing China's conduct regarding Tibet and the Sudanese region of Darfur.

Little mentioned in the debate are the daily challenges — from monitoring to arrest — risked by Zheng and any of China's 1.3 billion residents if they challenge the party line.

Zheng, a 57-year-old Shanghai native, first encountered trouble during the Cultural Revolution at age 17. He was sent to far northern Heilongjiang province, just south of what was then the Soviet Union, interrupting his secondary school studies. When he arrived back in Shanghai six years later, he had no diploma and no place to live.

Zheng quickly made up his studies, however, and entered Fudan University to study economic administration. Before the 1980s were out, he had also taught himself law and qualified for a license to practice. Sensitized by his past, he started defending Shanghai families expelled from their homes to make way for the explosive development that would turn the city into China's largest, richest and most modern.

"Why did I worry about those people who lost their homes?" Zheng asked, sitting one evening in his living room in front of a wall full of legal manuals and case files. "Because I had the same experience."

Using Chinese law against the government
Feng Zhenghu, a friend and fellow activist, said Zheng started out like any other lawyer but began to see his clients' problems as the result of government corruption and misconduct. As a result, Feng said in an interview, Zheng gravitated increasingly toward human rights cases and confrontation with Shanghai authorities.

His tactic was to use the letter of Chinese law, which offers broad guarantees in theory, to harass city officials seeking to plow ahead with development deals. By asserting that the deals were often driven by officials' desire for self-enrichment, Zheng became known as an adversary up and down the Shanghai government and party bureaucracy.

"In such cases, it's their own interests they are protecting," Feng said. "Why are they so concerned? It's just speaking out and writing articles, right? Well, it's because people respond to these ideas. They want change. They can produce a lot of pressure on the government."

Zheng converted to Christianity along the way and started attending services at a Wesleyan church about a 15-minute walk from his home. His wife, Jiang Meili, also became a member. Their faith, Zheng said, has given them values that inform his legal activism.

In recent years, several dozen lawyers have made it their business to use Chinese law to defend people against the government. Like Zheng, a number have suffered retaliation.

One, Li Heping, was kidnapped and beaten in September. His car was recently rammed by a police vehicle as he took his son to school. Another, Teng Biao, was kidnapped for about 40 hours last month, presumably because of his friendship with Hu Jia, the Internet essayist sentenced Thursday to 3 1/2 years in prison. Gao Zhisheng, a lawyer who became famous defending practitioners of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, has been under house arrest for months.

In defending homeless families caught up in land confiscation, Zheng got into particular trouble by suggesting publicly that corruption had infected senior officials in the Shanghai leadership. Specifically, he pointed a finger at Huang Ju, a former mayor who rose to the Politburo's elite Standing Committee; Chen Liangyu, the Shanghai party secretary; and two sons of Jiang Zemin, the national party leader and president before Hu Jintao.

"Corruption is a large-scale problem in China," Zheng said, dressed in two layers of sweaters to ward off the chill in his heatless apartment. "But the biggest problem of all is corruption in land seizures. So that's why they're always after me."

Shanghai authorities acted first to invalidate Zheng's law license. Undeterred, he kept taking cases. Then came the criminal prosecution.

Zheng had been given a New China News Agency dispatch describing the Shanghai land disputes. Unknown to him, he said, it was an "internal" article, distributed only to officials above a certain level. He gave the dispatch to local reporters for the BBC and Agence France-Presse and faxed a copy to a U.S.-based human rights organization.

For that, he was convicted of revealing state secrets and sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his time, he was released in 2006. That, he said, is when the surveillance cameras were installed and plainclothes police from the local Public Security Bureau were stationed on the landing.

The Zhabei District Public Security Bureau, queried by telephone, said it knew nothing about the team monitoring Zheng. "Don't disturb us," a woman said before hanging up. An official at the city Public Security Bureau's information office said he would investigate and call back, but did not.

Zheng has been unable to return to work because of the restrictions, which include disabling his land-line and cell phones. He said he relies on his wife's pension and contributions from sympathetic lawyers in Beijing and the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group in Hong Kong.

Sticking his neck out
Police have cited Zheng as a suspect because his wife's younger brother has been accused of evading taxes on an adjacent apartment, Feng said. He has repeatedly been called in to testify. "But the more they try to pressure him, the more he sticks his neck out," Feng said, smiling.

In what was interpreted as a gesture of U.S. government support, Zheng's daughter, Zheng Zhaojia, 22, was granted a U.S. visa last year and has gone to the United States to study. "We are dismayed by the restrictions on Mr. Zheng's freedoms, including his inability to leave his residence and meet with other people," the U.S. Consulate here said in a statement.

Long after Zheng's accusations irritated officials, party secretary Chen was fired and tried for massive corruption; he is awaiting a verdict. Huang Ju died of cancer last year, but his secretary, Wang Weigong, was taken into custody on charges of corruption in the same case. The Shanghai government, however, still appears concerned with Zheng.

A pair of civilian officials visited him on Wednesday last week, he said, and urged him not to post anything on the Internet about Tibet because of the "sensitive situation." On Friday, the plainclothes police squad upbraided him for trying to leave for evening services at the church down the street.

"Why are you trying to surprise us?" he quoted them as saying, suggesting they had orders that the Sunday morning leave was all he was going to get.

A reporter who visited Saturday evening was escorted to Zheng's landing by a man dressed in black slacks and a black leather jacket. The man said nothing as he stepped into the elevator alongside the reporter. After pushing the button for Zheng's floor without being asked, he rode up and got out on the 14th floor, but turned away when the reporter opened Zheng's door. The next day, as Zheng tried to leave for church around 6:30 a.m., plainclothes police turned him back without explanation.

His wife called the local police station for help, Zheng said, but nobody came.