Jason Gottlieb
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As we near the Chinese New Year, it is important to remember the historic advances China has made over the last year in the field of irony.

In 1998, China took the biggest step toward protecting human rights to date in signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of speech and political thought (although signed, the covenant has not, to date, been ratified by the Chinese parliament). Then, in December, China proved the extent of its commitment by arresting, convicting, and jailing four political activists for the crime of "attempting to overthrow the state." These four men had been involved with (the horror!) the formation of a new political party, the Chinese Democratic Party, whose biggest talking point was trying to convince China to honor its commitments under the ICCPR.

So, for the crime of proclaiming that China should keep its promise of protecting political speech, four men, Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, Wang Youcai, and Zhang Shanguang, were imprisoned for terms between 10 and 13 years each. Xu was allowed a (state-appointed) lawyer. The others were not.

The four men are veteran voices for democracy in China, and no strangers to prison. Xu was a leader of the 1978-79 Democracy Wall movement, which earned him a 12-year sentence. Qin was imprisoned for seven years for his role in the Democracy Wall movement, and later spent another two years in a labor camp for his signature on a "peace charter" calling for democratic reform. For his part, Wang was a student leader in the 1989 Tianenmen Square protests, and served two years' time for that "offense."

While on trial, and in handcuffs, Xu wrote a letter to his wife that he was able to pass to her. "History will judge us fairly," it said, and announced his intentions to ignore the remainder of the proceedings. "My so-called open trial was in truth nothing more than a means for political persecution. So I shall not give a fleeting thought to this 'judicial process,' or answer any questions put to me by the prosecutor or courts." The letter was signed, "Penned in handcuffs."

The kangaroo-court nature of the trials and the harsh sentences brought vehement protests from the Western world. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said he was "shocked," and called for their immediate release, adding that the response of the Chinese courts was "completely unacceptable." Britain, France, and Japan all added their disappointment and registered their protests. Sidney Jones, director of Human Rights Watch, said quite accurately, "China's signature on a human rights treaty isn't worth the paper it's written on if this is what it does to peaceful political activists."

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