Days before China's human rights record comes under scrutiny before a key UN panel, the government's grip on dissent seems as firm as ever.
Government critics have been rounded up and some imprisoned on vaguely defined state security charges. Corruption whistle-blowers have been bundled away, while discussion of sensitive political and social topics on the Internet remains tightly policed. On Friday, officers stationed outside a government building in Beijing took away at least eight people, members of a loosely organized group of 30 who had traveled to the capital from around the country, seeking redress for various problems, almost all of them involving local corruption.
One member of the group, Li Fengxian, a gray-haired woman from the central province of Henan, held up a sign with the character for "injustice" painted on it.
Li, 65, said she has spent years fighting officials in her village who she claimed give away a poverty allowance allotted to her family to other officials.
The police response underscores the government's determination to keep control over a fast-changing society, even in the face of a UN meeting to examine China's human rights record. The review by the UN Human Rights Council, which begins on Monday, is part of a new process that evaluates member countries in an effort to prompt improvements and address violations. The council, which replaced the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, has no enforcement powers, but is supposed to act as the world's moral conscience on human rights.
Following the review, the three-nation working group composed of Canada, India, and Nigeria will submit a report of their findings. The stakes are high for China, one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which wants to be seen as a responsible player in the international community. At the same time, the Communist leadership is worried about its grip on power slipping as the economic downturn and rising unemployment threaten to aggravate social unrest.
Authorities are especially sensitive this year, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests and the subsequent military crackdown. On Thursday, four months before the anniversary, two events commemorating a milestone modern Chinese art exhibition whose iconoclastic spirit fed into the rebellious mood of the times were shut down.
Jiang Yu, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, said this week that China was looking forward to "constructive dialogue" at the UN panel.
"It is normal that countries would have differences of opinion on human rights issues and we hope, on the basis of dialogue, to narrow our differences and expand our consensus," Jiang said. Beijing hopes its record will be considered "fairly and objectively," she said.
The council will review a report submitted by China that emphasizes the government's interpretation of human rights largely as a matter of improved economic conditions. Standards of living are rising, it says, while progress is being made in education, health, political participation and the legal system.
"The Chinese people, who once lacked basic necessities, are now enjoying relative prosperity," the document says. Rights groups have labeled it a whitewash.
"China's rights record remains a matter of grave concern," said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
"No country has a perfect human rights record, but the problem with China is that it jails people who expose violations, maintains absolute censorship over state media and prevents victims of human rights abuses from finding justice," he said.
As an example, Bequelin said security agents had again detained outspoken human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng before dawn Tuesday morning, part of a seemingly endless cycle of detention, release and house arrest.
"In a sense, he is in a revolving door," Bequelin said. He added that Gao has described being tortured in the past by Chinese security officials and that his whereabouts were now unknown. The government showed its hard line in its response to a petition released in December calling for civil rights and political reforms. Many of its authors and signatories have been detained or harassed. Other forms of intimidation and abuse are more mundane, such as the treatment of petitioners seeking redress from officials in Beijing.
Despite such knee-jerk reactions, the government does seem to recognize the need for greater responsiveness, say some China watchers.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China politics expert at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Chinese citizens who are better educated and expect more of their government are becoming more assertive in the face of repression.
"It's a small step," Cabestan said. "We hope eventually things will change."