Crackdown on activists and minorities in China

The Chinese authorities have engaged in a number of troubling crackdowns on activists and minority groups in the past week. On Tuesday, eyewitnesses reported that Chinese police used teargas and electric prods to disperse 500 demonstrators in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.

The demonstrators were seeking the release of fellow monks held after the previous day’s protests.

It was also reported that 11 protesters, including nine monks, were severely beaten and detained outside Tsuklakhang cathedral in central Lhasa on Monday. They had been demonstrating to mark the 49th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet after the failed rebellion against Chinese rule. Some 50 monks have also been detained across the capital.

The authorities had previously targeted the Uighur population of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). They claimed on Sunday to have thwarted a “terrorist” plot to attack the Olympics, which they linked to alleged Uighur separatists.

This was based on a raid conducted on a so-called “terrorist gang” in the XUAR in January 2008 in which, according to official sources, Chinese police killed two members of the gang and arrested 15 others.

They provided no concrete evidence to support these assertions, and it is unclear why the authorities only disclosed the alleged plans for an attack on the Olympics three months later. These charges also contradict the original claim made the authorities that the “terrorist gang” in Xinjiang had been planning an incident on February 5, the Gulja Massacre, when the Chinese authorities brutally cracked down on peaceful demonstrators, with several hundred estimated to have been killed.

The authorities also claimed on Sunday to have thwarted a plot to crash a Chinese airplane flying from Urumqi, the capital of the XUAR, to Beijing.

The claims came just days after Amnesty International warned of an ongoing crackdown against human rights lawyers and other activists in Beijing linked to China’s hosting of the Olympic Games. The Chinese authorities’ references to “terrorism” and threats to state security, especially in the context of preparations for the Olympics, are seen as a justification for a broad crackdown not only on ethnic minorities critical of China’s rule, but human rights defenders as well.

“Intensified censorship and attacks and abductions of peaceful activists by suspected security officials in Beijing make a mockery of official promises to improve human rights in the run-up to the Olympics,” said Tim Parritt, Deputy Program Director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Program, on Friday.

Amnesty International revealed that Teng Biao – a lawyer, academic and human rights activist – went missing after eyewitnesses saw him being bundled into a vehicle just after he arrived home at around 8.30pm on Thursday, 6 March. While he has subsequently released, he was apparently warned not to speak to foreign journalists about his abduction.

In a separate case on Friday morning, human rights lawyer Li Heping’s car was rammed by a police car while he was driving his son to school in Beijing. He and his son were jolted by the crash, but are not thought to have suffered serious injuries. The police car had been following him from his home and apparently accelerated before the crash.

Li Heping recognized the three officers in the car as being from his police district. He said that the driver of the car ignored him when he confronted him about the crash and traffic police refused to take up the case when he reported the incident to them later in the day.

In September 2007, Li Heping was abducted by unidentified men, beaten with electro-shock batons and told he should leave Bejing or risk further attacks.

“The intensification of the targeting of two human rights lawyers suggests that the stranglehold on activists in Beijing is tightening in the run up to the Olympics,” said Tim Paritt.. The authorities must conduct a full, impartial investigation into the abduction of Teng Biao and the incident involving Li Heping.