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US Congressional Group Warns China Backsliding on Human Rights

The Congressional-Executive Commission on China has concluded human rights in China deteriorated this past year, following some limited improvements. This was among the findings in the group's annual report issued in Washington Wednesday.

The U.S. Congress created the Congressional-Executive Commission on China six years ago to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China.

At a Capitol Hill hearing where the report was released, commission chairman Senator Chuck Hagel praised Chinese government efforts to establish the rule of law and raise hundreds of millions of citizens out of extreme poverty. But he said that while China is advancing economic freedoms, it is limiting political rights.

"The gap between forward-looking economic freedoms and a backward-looking political system remains significant," said Mr. Hagel.

Some of the experts consulted by the commission were at the hearing. New York University law professor Jerome Cohen criticized China's failure to pass a law covering criminal procedure. He says China had been expected to enact the law to pave the way for ratification of the U.N. Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Professor Cohen also expressed concern that China's legislature, the National People's Congress, has yet to abolish the punishment known as "re-education through labor," which allows police to imprison people for up to four years without judicial review.

"That has been one of the most effective and feared police sanctions for almost the entire career of the People's Republic of China," said Professor Cohen. "There's been a bill before the National People's Congress for over two years that would abolish or at least substantially reform that sanction. And that too seems dead in the water."

Another speaker, John Kamm, is head of the Dui Hua Foundation, an American organization that works to advance human rights in China through dialogue with the Chinese government. For years, Dui Hua has raised cases of Chinese political prisoners by presenting lists of their names to the Chinese ministry of justice. Kamm says about one year ago, though, this communication stopped.

"The Chinese government has now decided to close this channel," he noted. "The ministry of justice has said it will not meet me anymore, unless I agree to stop raising names and submitting lists. This I cannot agree to do."

Meanwhile, some experts say China's rapid economic growth may actually be providing disincentives for the government to allow greater political freedom. This argument is made by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Minxin Pei, who says the country's strong economy takes pressure off the government, to either pursue democratic reforms or allow the existence of opposition political parties.

"Because under one party rule, China's political elites can easily convert their political power into economic wealth, they have even less incentive to permit greater political competition," he explained. "It is obvious that democratic reforms will threaten not only their political monopoly, but also their newly acquired economic wealth."

Pei warns China is heading into a period of more intensified government control. He said the country is determined to maintain social and political order as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics. In Beijing's mindset, he says, control equals stability.