As we go to press, in many parts of the globe former dictators who many thought could never be held accountable for the crimes they committed against the people they ruled are facing prosecution. The Chilean judiciary has just revoked the immunity from prosecution former president Augusto Pinochet had granted himself, and the one-time Indonesian strongman Suharto is facing trial on corruption charges. These are just a few examples of the worldwide trend towards ending impunity for human rights abuses.
Although the possibility of putting leaders in China responsible for human rights abuses into a similar position appears remote at this moment, the question of impunity has been firmly put on the agenda by the actions of the Tiananmen Mothers. They see their struggle for accountability not only in terms of the past - an effort to bring justice to the victims of the June Fourth massacre - but also as a contribution to building a future in which human rights violators can be punished for their acts.
For engaging in such a campaign, people like Ding Zilin, the mother who lost her 17-year-old son in the June Fourth massacre in 1989, are labelled enemies. Security officials have repeatedly cursed Ding as a traitor to the nation for her work to document the facts of the massacre and to bring comfort to its victims, both bereaved families and people injured. She writes of this abuse, and how funds sent from abroad to help the victims have been frozen by the state security bureau, and visitors who have sought to deliver money and letters to the group have been detained by state security officials.
The meeting between Su Bingxian, a retired translator who lost her young son in the June Fourth massacre in 1989, and Lois Snow, the widow of journalist Edgar Snow, was treated in a similar fashion. Both women write in this issue of their encounter outside the gates of Peoples University in Beijing. Lois Snow had travelled to Beijing to meet Ding Zilin. But the authorities prevented Ding from leaving her apartment and prevented Snow from going to see her, so Su, a close friend of Dings also active in the campaign, went to greet Snow and thank her for her visit.
A couple of days after the meeting, Su was detained on suspicion of endangering state security. She was strip-searched and interrogated for 24 hours. The questions focused exclusively on Sus meeting with Lois Snow, and particularly on whether or not the visitor had entrusted Su with a donation to be given to the June Fourth victims. No explanation of how such matters might be harmful to the security of the state was ever given.
The need to safeguard state security has been cited as a justification for imposing severe restrictions on those conducting social surveys in China, particularly if the polls are commissioned by foreign companies, institutions or individuals, or conducted with foreign funds or cooperation of any kind. At the end of July this year, the Chinese government finally issued rules on a licensing system for firms that conduct polls with external involvement. These are the latest in a series of regulatory measures that require licensing of polling firms and other bodies that carry out surveys, and mandate advance approval from the authorities for particular surveys, right down to the questions being asked. When the final report on a survey is complete, the companies have to get official approval before it can be released. Commenting on the new licensing system, an article in Legal Daily said that it was necessary because in the past such surveys had been used to harm state security and the interests of the public and of society.
Several mainland labor activists are now serving long prison terms for reporting on worker protests and petitions. At their trials, the state prosecutor characterized such information as intelligence. An example is the case of Zhang Shanguang, highlighted in this issue, who is now serving a ten-year term for telling a reporter from Radio Free Asia about marches by peasants in his part of Hunan to protest against high taxes being imposed on them. Some journalists and activists have been charged with subversion for interviewing demonstrating workers.
It is hard to imagine how collecting information on peoples habits or opinions, or interviewing workers, could pose any danger to the security of the Chinese state, under any reasonable definition of that term. It is also difficult to understand how the efforts of a group of bereaved mothers to comfort each other, document how their children died and raise funds to support other victims could constitute such a threat. Unfortunately, the fact is that in todays China, the concept of state security is routinely misused in a way that completely distorts the meaning of the term.
Protecting state security is evidently nothing more than a rationale for detaining critics of the regime and banning the release of information that might embarrass it. Such specious arguments are reminiscent of the former leaders who are now facing the prospect of paying for their crimes. History stands on the side of the Tiananmen Mothers.