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The rise and fall of the China Democracy Party

October 22, 2000

The China Democracy Party (CDP), which made waves two years ago, has now been effectively crushed, writes Jan van der Made. This article examines the genesis, the suppression and the fall of the CDP.


The China Democracy Party first emerged during a period of political thaw in China that some publications referred to as a “Beijing Spring.” Over a period of roughly a year, from September 1997 to mid-November 1998, Chinese authorities relaxed official control over intellectual debate and expression of political views.

The thaw may have been linked to the relatively trouble-free passing of three key events: the death of Deng Xiaoping in February 1997, the return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997, and the Fifteenth Party Congress in September 1998. None of the events had triggered social unrest or political power struggles, despite predictions to the contrary.

The easing of controls at that time may also have been part of an attempt to create international goodwill in advance of planned visits by US President Bill Clinton in June 1998 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson in September 1998. On October 27, 1997, China signed the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and hinted that the signing of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) would follow.



Concrete ideas for creating an opposition party originated in late 1997. Wang Youcai, a former student activist who had been jailed for two years for involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy movement, discussed the formation of an opposition party with a group of other dissidents. The idea had come to him while he was still in prison, but it was not until well after his release that he acted upon it.

The CDP was to be based on the principles of “openness,” “peace,” “reason” and “legality.” Its aim was direct elections and the formation of a multiparty system. In early 1998, its founders decided that their general strategy would be to form local preparatory committees to test the response of local authorities. In any province where there were enough members to form a group, an application would be made to the local civil affairs bureau to register a preparatory committee. Since no formal procedures existed to provide for new political parties to apply for legal status, CDP members chose the civil affairs option on the grounds that this was the closest approximation of a system for lawful registration. Once preparatory committees had been established in a number of provinces, a national preparatory committee would be formed. Meanwhile, individual pro-democracy activists who did not belong to local preparatory committees would be able to join the national committee. This would pave the way for the formation of a national opposition party which would engage directly in politics, including by putting up candidates for the National People’s Congress (NPC).

Early meetings of the CDP were kept secret. On the eve of the Clinton visit, however, members of the Hangzhou Preparatory Committee, led by Wang Youcai, decided to go public, believing that the Chinese government would not act against them during the visit. On June 25, 1998, they signed a founding document, the “Open Declaration of the Establishment of the CDP Zhejiang Preparatory Committee,” and circulated it on the Internet. They also published a draft party constitution.

On the same day, they requested the Zhejiang Province Civil Affairs Bureau to approve the party'’s application for formal legal status for the preparatory committee. It was the first time that dissidents had tried to register a committee that intended to work toward the formation of an opposition party in the People’s Republic of China.

The “Open Declaration” declared that: “All political power can come only from the public and can only be [used] in the service of the public; a government can only come into being according to the wishes of the public and [can only] act according to the wishes of the public; a government is the servant of the public and not the one which controls it.” It went on to criticize the ruling party for not allowing the existence of opposing groups: “The CDP strongly condemns the behavior of ruling groups which suppress political opposition groups by force; strongly condemns the application of methods such as torture and reform-through-labor against those who hold differing political views; and strongly demands the authorities release all persons detained for differing political views.” The declaration also openly asserted that political power obtained through the use of “violence and violent intimidation” was “illegal without exception.”

As other preparatory committees were formed, the same basic text was used, though with local modifications as members saw fit. Lacking a secure communication system or the funds to invite potential members to assemble at one place, the founding members called upon dissidents nationwide to take action themselves.

After the CDP was formally launched in Hangzhou, Wu Yilong, one of the founding members and author of its “Guidelines for Activities,” went on a 16-day nationwide tour and was instrumental in the formation of other local preparatory committees. He did not contact potential members by telephone for fear that their phones were bugged, and he did not sleep in hotels to avoid registering his name, as hotel registers are routinely checked by officials. By December 1998, his efforts had contributed to the formation of some 24 provincial preparatory committees. The party also had some 200 individual members whose telephone numbers and addresses were posted on Internet Web sites.



The authorities took their first action against the CDP on July 10, 1998, shortly after President Clinton left China. They detained Wang Youcai, who had invited dissidents to attend a “tea party” in Hangzhou to discuss strategy, and 14 others. On August 7, Wang was officially arrested and charged with “inciting the overthrow of state power.” In an unusual move, however, the government released him on August 31, into a form of house arrest known as residential surveillance. The Chinese authorities rarely release indicted suspects from detention; his “release” was seen as a breakthrough brought about by international pressure and open letters and petitions from dissidents within China. CDP members then decided that the time was ripe for another preparatory committee to go public.

Accordingly, on September 10, 1998, Xie Wanjun and Liu Lianjun, two CDP members in Shandong province, went to the Office for Social Groups under the Shandong Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau and sought to register the CDP Shandong Province Preparatory Committee. Xie and Liu saw this action as a means of showing authorities that the committee had been established, and to make clear that they intended to proceed openly and legally.

Two deputy directors and a clerk received them and read from what the CDP activists said looked like a prepared statement. The statement said that the central government is considering the establishment of the China Democracy Party, but it must meet the following four conditions:

  • It must have registered capital of 50,000 yuan;
  • An office space carrying the name of the CDP must be applied for in written form;
  • Resumes of the chairperson, vice chairperson and secretary must be submitted;
  • A list of 50 members must be submitted.

The officials added that the registration of the party must be “in accordance with the Regulations Concerning the Registration and Management of Social Groups.” Therefore, approval should be sought first from the appropriate work unit, the basic building block of the Chinese administrative structure. But with this case, the officials said, as the CDP was a fully independent group, it presented a “new situation,” and it would have to be solved according to “new considerations.” CDP members in Shandong took it as a good sign that local authorities had not immediately rejected their application. Encouraged, CDP members in Hubei province tried to register as well. The next day, however, a Beijing official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs said during a press conference for international media that provincial bureaus of civil affairs had no authority to permit the establishment of political parties.



After these first attempts, the authorities became less tolerant. On September 16, five veteran dissidents in Beijing - Ren Wanding, Ma Shaohua, Zhao Xin, Yang Qing and Wang Linhai - established the CDP Beijing Preparatory Committee. They planned to try to register the party officially with the Civil Affairs Bureau on September 18, but on the evening of September 16, Ma and Wang were called to a local police station and interrogated for up to three hours. Meanwhile, the home of Zhao, who was out of town, was ransacked. The next day, police told Ren to give up his plans to register the party. “We'’re still under the Communist Party’s leadership,” they said. “Setting up political parties is not permitted.”

On September 18, the Shanghai branch submitted its petition for registration. Signed by Han Lifa, Zhou Jianhe, Xu Hong, Yao Zhenxian and Li Guotao, the petition was delivered to the Shanghai municipal Civil Affairs Bureau by Han. As the relevant officials were in a meeting, he left it with a note attached. At the same time, the Shanghai group sent the petition through the post. It was returned to the sender.

The day after Han delivered the petition, police came to Zhou’'s house. He later recalled: “Around eight or nine in the evening, police came looking for the five signatories, that is how important they considered the matter. So many people came to [the] house that they couldn’t all fit in. Two were from the Civil Affairs Bureau. They said that the registration submitted had been received, [but] that the application was not accepted, not approved, and that it was thereby returned. The officials of the Civil Affairs Bureau then left, but the police stayed behind and told the activists, ‘You can’'t go on like this—, we'’ll take you in. This is a directive from above. This is political activity, political thought.’”

At the end of September, police in Changchun, capital of Jilin province, issued a warning to the CDP Northeast Preparatory Committee, saying the committee was “an illegal organization.” In response to the Changchun police’s use of this term, the five preparatory committees that had tried to register—Zhejiang, Shandong, Hubei, Northeast and Shanghai—issued a protest statement on September 23. On September 24, 1998, Liu Lianjun, a founder of the CDP Shandong Province Preparatory Committee, was detained. He described the discussion on the definition of “political party” he had had with the police: “The police said, ‘A political party is not a social group.’ ‘No?’ I asked. ‘The definition of a social group includes political parties.’ They said, ‘That is the broad meaning. The narrow meaning is that a political party is not a social group.’ I said, ‘In a narrow meaning, a political party is also a social group.’ They said, ‘Then our understanding is not the same.’ [...] I said, ‘If it is not possible to establish a political party according to the current Law of [Social] Groups, I can only conclude that the Law on [Social] Groups has problems.’”

On October 5, 1998, China signed the ICCPR. Marking the occasion, Qin Huasun, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said that “to realize human rights is the ideal of all humanity. It is also a goal that the Chinese government has long been striving for.” Ten days later, the CDP’s Sichuan Preparatory Committee, led by Liu Xianbin, She Wanbao and Huang Xiaomin, attempted to register at the Sichuan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau’s Office for Registration of Social Groups. The application was refused on the grounds that a political party was not within the scope of social groups. “The Sichuan Provincial Civil Affairs Bureau only accepts registration by social groups involved in arts and sports,” they were told. Members in Guizhou province also tried to register. There was no immediate reaction. In retrospect, it was the calm before the storm.



The suppression of the CDP started in earnest in late 1998. On September 25, 1998, China'’s State Council had approved the Regulations for Registration and Management of Social Groups. The new regulations were more detailed and restrictive than those they replaced and were clearly a response to the increasing number of social organizations emerging in the country. They accentuated once more that groups which intended to register needed a sponsoring unit, such as a state-run institution, which effectively meant that independent groups were barred from registering altogether. According to Human Rights in China'’s analysis at the time, the system of registration: “...effectively nullifies freedom of association, since any unregistered group is ‘illegal.’ It also bars former political prisoners for life from forming non-profit groups or acting as their officers, as well as setting very high financial and other requirements for the establishment of a group, which will effectively block the poorest and most vulnerable from exercising this right.”

The new regulations also demanded total conformity with state policy: Social groups/units must abide by the Constitution, the laws and regulations and state policies; may not violate the basic principles established in the Constitution; may not harm national unity, state security and the solidarity of the nationalities; may not harm the interests of the state, society, other groups or individuals; and may not go against society'’s morality and customs.

The signing of the ICCPR, however, led CDP members to speed up the process of consolidating the embryonic party and bringing the various provincial preparatory committees together as one organization. But China’s commitment to the ICCPR offered little protection in fact.

On November 2, Wang Youcai was moved back into detention from house arrest. The police claimed that he had left his house too many times without informing them. But other CDP members proceeded with their plans. On November 6, Xu Wenli established the “First CDP National Congress Preparatory Working Group.” The group consisted of Xu Wenli, Gao Hongming and Zha Jianguo, all Beijing-based veterans of the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement. Then, on November 9, Xu, Gao, Zha and a Tianjin-based former Democracy Wall activist, Lu Honglai, established the “CDP Beijing-Tianjin Regional Party Branch,” with Xu as chairman. The branch adopted a revised party charter, and on November 11, the group issued a statement declaring that it would take two years to establish the CDP and that they hoped to organize a first national congress at the beginning of 2000. The group said it was a temporary vanguard that would undertake consultations leading to the establishment of a more permanent core CDP leadership. It called on dissidents in prison and in exile abroad to join in these efforts.

Xu’'s decision to create a “party branch” rather than a “preparatory committee,” however, caused controversy within the dissident movement as this implied that the party was already operational, not still in the process of formation. Activists in Hangzhou, Shanghai, Shandong and elsewhere considered the move premature but other “branches” were soon formed, resulting in a hybrid structure where “preparatory committees” and “party branches” coexisted.

Meanwhile, on November 10, the CDP National Preparatory Committee issued an open letter directly appealing to the State Council to enable it to exercise the “natural right to organize a party,” in accordance with the freedoms of association, expression and assembly guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution and the ICCPR. The letter argued, echoing the CDP'’s Hangzhou Preparatory Committee, that economic reforms would not be successful if not accompanied by political liberalization, and it repeated the CDP'’s “Four Principles” of “reason, peace, openness and legality.” Following the lead of Beijing and Tianjin, the CDP in Hubei also set up a party branch. On November 26, spokesman Qin Yongmin announced that the Hubei branch respected the provisional CDP charter and planned to submit it “to the First CDP National Congress for deliberation, revision and approval.” The Hubei members then published the full texts of the CDP party charter, the party oath and a list of their leading members on the Internet. All of these actions were indications that the CDP saw itself as a nationwide organization and was moving toward the formation of a national structure.

Then, in an interview with the German daily Handelsblatt published on December 1, 1998, NPC Chairman Li Peng made clear the government’s attitude to any group which dared challenge the Communist Party: “If the purpose [of the group] runs contrary to the Constitution or the basic policies of China, or against the socialist market economy, national unity and independence, or against social stability, and if it is designed to negate the leadership of the Communist Party, then it will not be allowed to exist.” He added: “China'’s National People’s Congress will not use the Westminster formula, whereby members of parliament are noisy and even rude to each other during debates.”

After this unmistakable signal from the top, the official clamp down on the CDP gathered momentum, and over the following months there were three distinct waves of arrests, interrogations, and trials of CDP activists.



The first wave of arrests resulted in the detention of at least seven prominent CDP members, including Xu Wenli, Wang Youcai and Qin Yongmin, all of whom were then tried and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.


Xu Wenli
Court proceedings against Xu Wenli started on December 9, 1998. He was accused of plotting to overthrow the government and undermine state security, in violation of Article 105(1), Article 106 and Article 66 of the PRC Penal Code. The indictment also noted that Xu had advocated “ending one-party dictatorship, establishing a third republic, [and] guaranteeing human rights and freedom.” In addition, he was alleged to have given interviews to foreign journalists, accepted funds from abroad and “linked up with foreign hostile element” Yan Jiaqi, the exiled advisor to former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Xu was accused of collaborating with Yan in drafting the constitution of the CDP, which he then was said to have circulated.

In response to the charges, Xu'’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, who was defending him free of charge, argued that there was no evidence that he was directly involved in drafting the CDP charter and that other allegations against him had no basis. For his part, Xu told the court: “This trial is a grave political repression of the CDP by a small minority of CCP leaders. I therefore refuse to answer any questions from the prosecution.”

He went on to stress that the formation of the CDP was not aimed at “beating down or overthrowing” the Communist Party but merely “ending one-party rule by peaceful means.” The prosecution, however, contended that Xu’'s calls for an independent labor union, his willingness to be interviewed by foreign journalists and his acceptance of US$500 from abroad were evidence of his subversive activities.

On December 21, 1998, the court sentenced Xu to 13 years in prison and three years’' deprivation of political rights.

Wang Youcai
Wang Youcai was indicted in Hangzhou one week after his formal arrest on November 30, 1998, and a month after his detention on November 2. His “crimes,” according to the prosecution, included drafting the CDP declaration; being the prime mover of the CDP; intending to hold a CDP meeting in the form of a tea party; and sending 18 CDP documents abroad by electronic mail. On December 21, Wang was convicted of violating Article 106 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Qin Yongmin
Qin Yongmin was sentenced after a two-and-a-half-hour trial on December 17, 1998, in the Wuhan People’'s Intermediate Court. He was convicted of, among other things, “preparing to organize the CDP, editing [the newsletter] China Human Rights Watch, reporting on human rights to the United Nations and linking up with foreign hostile organizations.” He was given a 12-year prison term.

Even before the verdicts were handed down, President Jiang Zemin echoed Li Peng'’s hardline position in a speech in Japan on December 18, 1998, the 20th anniversary of China'’s economic reform policy: “We must be on guard, from the beginning to the end, against infiltrating, subversive and splittist activities by international and domestic hostile forces. Any political behavior that is aimed at damaging the stability and unity of our country runs counter to the will and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. No matter where these factors which damage social stability come from, we must firmly hold to the Four Basic Principles [of the Constitution] and have a clear-cut stand in increasingly opposing them and firmly nipping them in the bud.”



After the first trials had taken some of the top leaders out of action, a second layer of CDP leaders came forward, and once again, the focus of activity was in Hangzhou. These leaders continued to hold meetings and issue open letters to the Chinese government in the face of continuous harassment. For example, Wu Yilong, a principal CDP organizer who had traveled around the country to gather support in 1998, was expelled from Hangzhou University on January 16. The residence permit which allowed him to live in Zhejiang was automatically canceled, and he was expelled from the province. Later, in April, he was detained by Guangzhou police when he traveled to Guangdong to look for work. They sent him back to Hangzhou, where local police detained him on arrival and accused him of being a vagrant.

He was told that he would be released after the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 1999, but he remained in detention until he was brought to trial in October 1999.

Another Hangzhou activist, Zhu Zhengming, was interrogated by police on January 16, 1999, after he protested against Wu Yilong'’s expulsion from the university. The deputy chief of the police station to which he was taken told him, “Your sort of people, we should put you in a hemp bag and beat you to a pulp.” “Beating people is illegal,” said Zhu. The policeman then replied, “Of course we won'’t beat you [ourselves]. Others will beat you, and we won’'t know it.”

Zhu contrasted his treatment on this occasion with an earlier incident on July 8, 1998: “If that harassment [the first time] was comparatively civilized —- materials they checked were placed back in their original place - —then this one [in January 1999] was definitely barbaric. Everything was turned upside down; the house was in a mess. The police chief said, ‘After this, we'’ll come to make a mess every two weeks.’”



A new surge of nationalism was sparked by the May 7, 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This, together with the unexpected rise of the Falungong spiritual movement, and official fears of demonstrations and dissent in connection with the 10th anniversary of the 1989 Beijing massacre, led to a new wave of repression against anyone perceived to be deviating from state policy. Across the country during this period, more than 190 people were detained, including some CDP members.


Zha Jianguo & Gao Hongming
The case of Beijing CDP representative Zha Jianguo was heard on July 5, 1999. Gao Hongming was tried at the same time and both were charged with subverting state power. They were accused of publishing articles in the overseas dissident magazine, Beijing Spring. The authorities also alleged that in February 1999, Zha and Gao established the CDP United General Headquarters in order to organize the various provincial groups and drafted a “CDP United General Headquarters Constitution.” The men were also accused of designing a party flag, a symbol and a song, and of publishing a party charter that “stipulates that the prime objective of the CDP is to put an end to one-party dictatorship and establish a Third Republic.” On August 2, Zha was sentenced to nine years in prison and two years’ deprivation of political rights. Gao Hongming was sentenced to eight years in prison and two years'’ deprivation of political rights. On September 17, 1999, the Beijing High People’'s Court rejected their appeals.



On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1999, a new wave of arrests and trials began. As the anniversary drew near, the CDP had released several documents, including an “Open Declaration by CDP Branches of 25 Provinces and Cities.” In it, the party once again recognized Jiang Zemin as head of state and the CCP as the ruling party, but it also called for direct democratic elections and a system of division of powers. The CDP Sichuan Preparatory Committee called for a general amnesty for all political prisoners, pointing out that many countries give a general amnesty in connection with important festivals. The CCP, it said, should do the same and use the amnesty to lay the groundwork for political reform and improving human rights.

But instead of releasing political prisoners, Chinese authorities detained more people for their political activities. Liu Shizun, who had worked together with Xu Wenli, Zha Jianguo and Gao Hongming in the party'’s Beijing-Tianjin branch, was formally arrested on September 17, 1999. His house in Dalian was searched, and address books were confiscated. On the morning of October 1, a CDP member from Zhejiang, Nie Minzhi, was taken into custody.

Shortly after October 1, the wives of four top CDP activists, Mao Qingxiang, Zhu Yufu, Xu Guang and Wu Yilong, received an “urgent announcement” from the Hangzhou City Procuratorate that they should get their husbands lawyers, since the proceedings against them were about to begin. All four men had been in detention for months. Wu had been detained on April 26 in Guangzhou. Zhu and Mao, together with another CDP member named Wang Rongqing and two friends from Shanghai, had been in custody since June 19, 1999, although Mao’'s wife was only informed of the detention on September 20, some three months later. On September 24, the four wives wrote an open letter to the Chinese government demanding the release of their husbands and clarification as to where they were being held and under what charge. They received no response until the procuratorate informed them that the trials were imminent.

The trials started at 7:00 a.m. on October 25 in the Hangzhou Intermediate People’'s Court and lasted until 3:00 p.m. The four defendants were told that their attempts to establish the CDP constituted a plot to subvert state power. The prosecution also noted that they had established a magazine, Opposition Party, posted “subversive” material regarding the CDP on some Chinese-language bulletin boards on the Internet and “plotted to link up with overseas organizations.” The four spoke in their own defense, but judges cut them short because they made “anti-government” statements. Two weeks after the trial, the four were sentenced. Wu was given 11 years in prison, Mao eight years, Zhu, seven years, and Xu, five years.

Further trials took place in 2000. Tong Shidong, from Hunan province, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on January 3, after having been in detention for almost half a year. On the same day, Liao Shihua, a CDP member who had helped Tong Shidong edit a non-official publication at Hunan University in Changsha, received a six-year prison sentence. Zhu Zhengming, one of the main organizers of the CDP Zhejiang Preparatory Committee, was tried on March 17 and given a 10-year prison sentence on April 29, 2000. On July 7, Xiao Shichang and Chen Zhonghe, core members of the CDP Wuhan chapter, were sentenced respectively to five-and-a-half and seven-year prison terms. All were charged with subversion. The resistance was effectively broken.



The outlook for people who challenge the CCP is grim. President Jiang has continued to champion China'’s economic reform. He has supported efforts to reduce corruption and to improve the criminal justice system. But he has done nothing to change the basic line of Deng Xiaoping’'s “four basic principles,” which mandate Communist Party rule. On the contrary, he has worked to strengthen the leadership of the CCP by running political campaigns. The start of the “Three Stresses” campaign coincided with the arrests of CDP members at the end of 1998. The campaign, mainly aimed at Party officials, later merged with another, the “Three Representatives” campaign, which was launched in February 2000. Both aimed to incorporate Jiang'’s ideas of clean government and “spiritual civilization” into the broader set of Marxist-Leninist principles which guide the Communist Party.

Those who go beyond the Four Principles, the Three Stresses or the Three Representatives, it is clear, will be dealt with harshly. Jiang is reported to have indirectly referred to the crackdown on the CDP as an example of his success: Jiang is reported to have said to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, who visited Beijing on the eve of the historic Korean summit in June 2000, that the secret of maintaining control was to “snuff out any challenge [to the administration] when it is still at the embryonic stage.”

The emergence and suppression of the CDP reflect the cycles of tolerance and intolerance that have characterized all Chinese government policies since the end of the Cultural Revolution. It also shows that China has a long way to go before its actions in signing the two major human rights treaties can be said to reflect progress on human rights. The Chinese government will be taking steps to protect human rights when it releases all members of the CDP and other advocates of peaceful reform and when it stops treating efforts at peaceful political change as efforts to subvert state power.

Jan van der Made is a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

This article is excerpted from the Human Rights Watch report, Nipped in the Bud - The Suppression of the China Democracy Party, published in September 2000.





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