Hunger strikes for democracy in China

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Hunger strikes for democracy in China

By Eva Cheng

Beijing has shifted its repressive machine into higher gear since late November, arresting and interrogating some 30 pro-democracy activists, and sentencing three to jail terms of 11 to 13 years.

Refusing to be intimidated, pro-democracy activists around China have begun a marathon relay hunger-strike to press for the release of their jailed comrades. More than 200 activists are taking part, with each striking for 24 hours.

In solidarity, at least 46 exiled pro-democracy activists in the US, Canada and Japan also started a hunger-strike in mid-December, following by five Hong Kong-based activists from January 8.

Of the Hong Kong participants, Leung Kwok-hung and Lau Tze-lim are members of April 5th Action, Lau San-ching (imprisoned in China between 1981-91 for his pro-democracy activities) and Ng Kung-siu are from Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic and Democratic Movement in China, and Fung Chi-wood is from the Hong Kong Democratic Party.

In the context of the Chinese regime's new crackdown, such protest actions seem certain to attract further repression. The activists' bold actions reveal their high political confidence.

Beijing's latest crackdown started on November 30 when seven key activists in different cities were arrested or formally charged. Those arrested that day included Xu Wenli from Beijing; Lai Jinbiao from Hangzhou (Zhejiang province); and Qin Yongmin, Chen Zhonghe and Xiao Shichang from Wuhan (Hubei province). Wang Youcai, from Hangzhou, detained since November 2, had his arrest "formalised" on November 30 and Liu Xianli, detained since March for collecting material for his planned book on the Chinese democracy movement, was formally charged.

Liu and Qin were charged for "inciting to subvert the state power", while Xu was charged with "subverting" it already. All of the arrested are members of, or closely associated with the Chinese Democracy Party (CDP), which has been trying in vain since July to get registered in different parts of China.

Despite continuing harassment, CDP members refused to stop their party activities. Their Hubei branch, for example, held a plenary meeting on November 28.

Undeterred, CDP members quickly organised open protest letters — signed by 191 dissidents — to China's State President Jiang Zemin and Prime Minister Zhu Rongji. The marathon hunger-strike was also swiftly launched, initially with 19 participants, which increased to 213 by early January.

In early December, the CDP had already launched a national action network to organise rescue campaigns for the jailed comrades. Eleven provinces — including Hunan, Liaoning, Sichuan, Henan, Anhui, Hubei, Guizhou, Shandong, Jilin and Heilongjiang — were represented in the network, in addition to Beijing and Shanghai.

During the first week of December, although three CDP members from Liaoning province were released, one activist was arrested in Dalian while dozens in other provinces were warned or stalked. Then on December 8, five more CDP activists were arrested — four from Sichuan province and one from Fujian province. Many who were arrested later were centrally involved in organising rescue activities for those jailed earlier.

While the fate of most of those arrested remains unclear, there is little doubt that Beijing was determined to go hard on three key leaders: Xu Wenli (55), Qin Yongmin (45) and Wang Youcai (32).

Xu, who was in jail — mostly in solitary confinement — for 12 years until 1995 for his involvement in the "Beijing Spring" democracy movement of 1979-81, was sentenced this time to 13 years' imprisonment. Xu was a rail worker before his first jail sentence.

Wang, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests, was given a jail term of 11 years, while Qin was given 12 years.

Neither Wang nor Qin have legal representation. The police detained Wang's lawyer and warned Qin's against representing Qin. Wang had prepared a 20-page political speech in his defence but was stopped half an hour into delivering it. The judge wanted to read the rest "in private".

The trial has been very tightly controlled, with most family members, let alone other activists and foreign media, barred from attending. Similar restrictions were applied to the trials of Qin and Xu. However, activists mobilised outside the court in solidarity, with more than 300 protesting during Wang's trial.

Meanwhile, a Chongqing-based CDP sympathiser, Xu Wanping, was sentenced to three years of "reeducation through (hard) labour", and labour activist Zhang Shanguang was sentenced recently to 10 years of imprisonment for attempting to set up a group called the Association to Protect the Laid-Off Workers' Rights. For his involvement in organising a Workers Autonomous Federation in Hunan province in 1989, Zhang was jailed for seven years.

After his release, Zhang remained active in organising workers and was a signatory to a July 1998 petition of 100 dissidents to Jiang Zemin calling for the release of CDP activists.

Campaigning for Zhang's release, a Bangladesh workers' organisation, the Bangladesh Jatiyo Sramik Federation, held a protest on January 2 outside the Chinese embassy in Dhaka. BJSF's president Tafazzul Hussain urged trade unions around the world to take similar actions in defence of the Chinese workers.

In the latest indication of the desperate need to defend Chinese workers' rights, more than 100 retired workers who were protesting in Wuhan on January 4 for unpaid pensions — three months in arrears at 150 yuan (A$30) a month (hardly enough even for bare existence) — were abruptly forced into police vans and taken away.

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