Concrete steps on political reform needed
In the past few months, Premier Wen Jiabao has emphasised a need to better safeguard the personal rights and freedoms of Chinese citizens. These comments, despite the limited coverage given them by state media, were seen as a potential catalyst for a long overdue debate on political reform. Sounding more like a dissident than a senior, serving leader, Wen's comments alone were remarkable enough. They were followed by an open letter, signed by many party veterans, supporting his views on the eve of the annual plenum of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Unfortunately, these calls for change appear to have gone unheeded. Political reform merited just one vaguely worded sentence in the plenum communique. Not surprisingly, the leadership has little appetite for grappling with an issue that must be tackled if the country is to have the checks and balances desperately needed to curb corruption, preserve growth and close a widening income gap.
So the reality is that personal freedoms will remain severely restricted. Most recently, more than 200 Protestant church representatives on the mainland who had hoped to visit Cape Town for the Third Lausanne Congress on world evangelism were barred from leaving last week - a poignant reminder of how much still needs to be done before the ideals expresssed by Wen can be realised. During a visit to Shanghai, Hong Kong's Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was under constant surveillance and 'escort' even though his visit was for the benefit of improving Sino-Vatican ties.
Wen himself noted that there are rights already 'provided under the constitution and the law' and that 'to have a relaxed political environment, so people can better express their independent spirit and creativity, and to allow them to enjoy free and all-round development' would contribute towards developing a modern nation. Article 35 of the constitution protects 'freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration', while article 36 protects freedom of religious belief. These rights are described as 'fundamental rights and duties of citizens' and no doubt, the freedom to associate with international groups who share the same beliefs and the freedom to exchange ideas on those beliefs will have come under the category of rights described by Wen as being necessary for the 'all-round development' of the individual.
But while the 200 Protestant church representatives have had their religious rights and freedom of association restricted, senior members of the Chinese Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Church, the church backed by the central government, have previously welcomed the Lausanne Congress' honorary chairman, and the two sides are said to have cordial relations. It appears that this is an example of the constitution being applied to some but not others. Restriction of rights such as free expression and freedom of association are often justified by the need to maintain social order. But when the general population perceives selective application of the constitution, such acts of suppression will merely stir greater resentment. Ironically, members of Hong Kong religious circles have suggested that Beijing may have been concerned about how religious freedom in China may be portrayed at this conference. Hopefully, those responsible for barring the believers will now have realised that China's international reputation for respecting personal freedoms will only be enhanced by taking concrete steps on political reform.