China is defending its human rights record after handing down harsh jail sentences for pro-democracy activists. Critics say that human rights suffered a setback in China this year, following a series of high-profile prosecutions.
The recent days and weeks have not been good ones for democracy activists in China.
In Sichuan province, Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years in jail and in Guizhou province, Chen Xi - who is not related - was sentenced to prison for 10 years. Both men had written essays deemed critical to the Chinese government. Both men were formally charged with inciting subversion.
Chen Xi is a former soldier and factory worker, who was jailed for three years for supporting the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that were brutally crushed by Chinese tanks.
He had organized a citizens' human rights forum in the Guizhou capital, Guiyang. His wife, Zhang Qunxuan, says critical voices like his are necessary if the Chinese government is truly pursuing democracy and progress.
She says it is not that Chen Xi is trying to overthrow or subvert the government. She points out that he does not have an army, a police force or run the courts. Instead, she asks a rhetorical question - is the Chinese government so fragile that it worries about a pen and a piece of paper?
The sentences for both men were announced on or right before Christmas Day. Bob Fu, with the U.S.-based group China Aid, says he thinks the timing may be Beijing's deliberate choice.
“Apparently there's a calculation about the international publicity and western governments' response because if the verdict of a harsh sentence toward dissidents was pronounced during the Christmas season," he stated. "The Chinese government felt it might not invite much attention from the international community.”
He points to another Christmas Day jail sentence handed down in 2009 - an 11-year sentence to outspoken dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a year later.
Fu points to incidents of forced disappearance, arbitrary arrest, and detentions as evidence that the harsh crackdown on dissent in China is still ongoing. “At the end of 2011, we have a real cold winter for China's human rights, and I don't anticipate that things will get better,” he said.
At a regular briefing Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei defended China's human rights record.
He says the government has developed the economy, improved peoples' livelihoods, improved the legal system and rule of law, and is working to fully protect and guarantee Chinese peoples' rights and freedom.
He concluded that China's human rights record is “the best in its history.” He urged the international community to, in his words, “rightly and objectively look at China's human rights development.”