As part of the BBC's China Week, Haoyu Zhang of BBC
Chinese.com looks at the country's continued intolerance of any form of
Ever since President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao formally took
power more than two years ago, they have called on officials to put
people's interests first and help build a civil and harmonious society.
Ding Zilin and her son Jiang Jielian, when he was still alive
All this comes against a backdrop of rising social tension, as many
sections of Chinese society feel left behind by the economic boom.
Achieving "harmony", however, seems to have meant that any dissenting
voices are dealt with most swiftly and more harshly than ever before.
Ding Zilin is a retired university professor in her 70s.
For the past 16 years, she and a few others who lost sons and
daughters during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre have been calling on the
government to apologise.
But in response, these women, known as the Tiananmen Mothers, have
faced imprisonment, house-arrest, phone-tapping and constant
Since late February this year, as Beijing prepared for the annual
meeting of China's parliament, it was almost impossible to get through
by telephone to any of the known dissidents inside China.
Their home numbers were either "no longer in service" or answered by
a middle-age male voice, who responded: "Sorry, there is no such a
When the BBC finally reached Mrs Ding - at a secret mobile number
supplied by another dissident - the conversation lasted only a few
Mrs Ding first asked whether it was true that the European Union
would soon lift its arms embargo on China, imposed in protest at the
"France and Germany have always put their business interest first,"
said Mrs Ding. "I hope that Britain will stand up for principle and I
call on Mr Blair not to lift the embargo," she said.
Mrs Ding told the BBC that she had already lost hope in the new
generation of leaders in China.
"I can't even go and get groceries without them following me and
harassing me; neither Deng Xiaoping nor Jiang Zemin treated me as badly
Then the line went dead.
Zhang Xianling is another Tiananmen Mother. Her only son was killed
during the protests. She has also been subjected to numerous arrests and
"The police follow me wherever I go," said Mrs Zhang. "When I wanted
to go to the shops, they even joked about running the errand for me."
Mrs Zhang is also losing hope in the new generation of leaders.
A couple of months ago, when some sympathetic people from Hong Kong
posted boxes of printed T-shirts to her, she was arrested - just for
receiving the T-shirts.
"I guess some of the police officers feel bad about doing the things
they do," said Mrs Zhang. "Their excuses are always that they stand to
lose their jobs if they don't follow orders."
Mrs Zhang does not subscribe to the theory that increasing economic
prosperity in China will result in improved human rights.
She said her group had written so many open letters to both President
Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, asking them to reconsider the
government's position on Tiananmen.
There were hopes the new leadership, which was not so closely
implicated in what happened, would be more flexible. But the only
response so far has been more surveillance and harassment.
Rule of Law?
China's government says it wants to "introduce the rule of law" as
part of its drive to create a more harmonious society.
Last week, Guo Guoting, a Shanghai lawyer who became known for
defending dissidents and the more vulnerable members of society, had his
office ransacked by police. He was accused of unspecified "illegal"
dealings and of violating the constitution.
Many in the Chinese legal profession know this fate all too well.
Some even joke that there are more lawyers in prison than criminals.
Many argue that freedom in China has not improved since
Lawyer Gao Zhisheng runs his own practice. He told the BBC that he
was not surprised by his fellow lawyer's plight.
"Well, he's made a name for himself and thus attracted a lot of
attention," said Mr Gao. "Many lawyers are thrown into jail each year in
China, because the more attention they attract, the more likely they'd
expose the inherent evils in the current legal system," he said.
Mr Gao has himself become well-known for defending the weak. He said
he had been questioned more than 20 times by the authorities this year.
Mr Gao believes that ultimately change will have to come from the
"Hope lies with the people," he said.
Reviving 'Old' China
Feng Congde, one of the student leaders in 1989 who fled China, now
lives in Paris and works as a China expert and a social science
researcher. He agrees with Mr Gao's analysis.
Mr Feng said that during his flight to the West, he was only able to
evade police capture thanks to help from various underground qigong, or
"We university students were convinced that the way to change China
was to model everything on the West," he said.
He said he only realised after the experience that the real power of
change and the real hope for political change lay with reviving the
"For thousands of years, these grass-root organisations and
underground societies have always served as a counterbalance of power to
the state," said Mr Feng.
Mr Feng thinks that as China gains more economic freedom, increasing
numbers of the grass-root societies will slowly revive and rehabilitate,
and lead to change in China's political system.
These groups, of course, need people to recruit.
But even in Britain, just ask any of the tens of thousands of young
Chinese students who flock into the many UK universities each year, the
great majority of them either do not care or think that things are fine
Huang Hua, the general secretary of the Chinese Democratic Party in
the UK, one of the many overseas Chinese dissident organisations, said
he often meets with Britain's Chinese students and finds that they care
very little about politics.
But Mr Huang does see hope.
"Occasionally you do run into a few bright young minds," he
said. "They quickly realised, after only a few months in Britain, that
the root malaise of China lies within the authoritarian system."