Weighing China's Human-Rights Baggage on U.S. Visit

China's economic and social freedoms have increased to a certain extent, but the communist government has not relaxed its limits on free expression, says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California-Berkley's journalism department. Melissa Block talks with Xiao.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Xiao Qiang became a human rights activist after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. He's now Director of the China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California Berkeley and he says human rights conditions in China are no better now than they were 20 years ago.

Mr. XIAO QIANG (China Internet Project, University of California-Berkeley): China now is in a critical moment. On the one hand, we see there is increasing freedom on an economic and a social level and government is less and less able to be intrusive to the people's life.

But on the other hand, once those activities explode to the public domain, such as a demonstration, a public speech about political reform, then the state machine crack down again, as harsh as before and sometimes even harsher. And we see a lot more police brutal violence, even open fire, to the demonstrators. Even monitoring dissidents, instead of directly just throwing them in prison or under surveillance, government is additionally now using hired thugs to beat them up, in that way to intimidate people not to be openly opposed to the regime. So in those areas, the human rights conditions are definitely getting worse.

BLOCK: And for those who are detained, arrested, put in prison, what are conditions in those prisons? There are reports of torture of detainees.

Mr. QIANG: Yes, well, torture in China is pervasive, and this is from the government's own reports. You can judge by the number of cases, and also by the U.N. special reporter of torture, who visited in China and confirmed that torture in China is pervasive. As far as Mr. Hu Jintao's administration, I have not seen any effective measure on that front.

BLOCK: A number of the protests that we see here have to do with how China treats its religious groups, whether it's Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement, or Buddhists in Tibet. Which groups are the subjects of particular crackdowns now and how is that changing?

Mr. QIANG: Well, we do see there is a growing number of the different kind of a religious believers in Chinese society so we see the traditional religious activities, we also see the religious influence from the west, the Christianities. The government is very threatened by that, mainly because the potential to organize. The Falun Gong is the most stunning example, the fact they can mobilize so many members in so short of time completely shocked the government in 1999 and then they became the victim of the most brutal state repression in the last seven years, and until now this word, Falun Gong, is absolutely been banned on any Chinese media or on the Internet and anybody who publicly claimed to involved with them will be persecuted harshly.

BLOCK: Your own work with the China Internet Project would lead you to be tracking pretty carefully all the things that the government is censoring or filtering through the internet as it expands.

Mr. QIANG: Yes, actually you can see to monitoring China's Internet particularly looking into the government censorship mechanism, what do they censor? What do they want people to know? What do they not let people speak?

It's quite a effective way to read into the current government mind. You know what they fear of, you know what they care about, and also you know what they are trying to cover up. Falun Gong certainly is one of them. But far more than that social unrest, protests, rural area activities, the government are extremely sensitive and are trying to suppress every single bit of those information because their nightmare is in the information age, those kind of activities and the message will thread out from one isolated place, became a national phenomena.

Getting today's turn of condition is not impossible.

BLOCK: As you see the growth of the internet taking off in China and maybe economic freedoms expanding some, what do you see happening with human rights? Do you see any opening up possible at all?

Mr. QIANG: Well I do see the opening up, particularly the rising awareness among the Chinese people. Today, unlike 13 years ago or 15 years ago, human rights is a word can be publicly speaking about in Chinese society, largely because over the years the international campaign to force the Chinese government acknowledged the concept and now it's actually in the Chinese constitution and the government is on the defense, I mean still repressive. But at the same time they sort of finely tolerate the rhetoric of the human rights and that's also, it's a big change in Chinese society.

BLOCK: Xiao Qiang thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. QIANG: Thank you.

BLOCK: Xiao Qiang was executive director of the group Human Rights in China from 1991 to 2002. He is now director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley.

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