Monday, 27 January 2014

Human Rights in China

The tyrannical nature of the Chinese Government was on show again at the weekend a leading human rights activist was jailed for four years - for the terrible crime of organising small scale, peaceful street protests.

I suppose it's a sign of just how jumpy the Chinese Government/Communist Party are these days, but I imagine the number of activists demanding change and democratic reforms in China can only continue to grow - because in the long run economic property and greater personal freedoms go hand in hand.    

China jails activist Xu Zhiyong for four years for ‘disturbing public order’

Lawyer of high-profile dissident describes guilty conviction as ‘illegal and unfair’ following closed-door trial

By Tania Branigan

A plainclothes policeman holds onto Zhang Qingfang, the lawyer of anti-corruption activist Xu Zhiyong, in Beijing on Sunday. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

A Chinese court has jailed leading activist Xu Zhiyong for four years for public order offences related to his role in a social justice and transparency movement.

Xu is a legal scholar and advocate who has been at the forefront of campaigns for rights in China for a decade. Several others from the New Citizens Movement which he co-founded have stood trial already or will appear on Monday.

The Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court said on its microblog on Sunday morning that it had found Xu guilty of "gathering a crowd to disturb public order" following his closed-door trial on Wednesday.

The charges related to small-scale, peaceful street protests by members of the movement, calling for educational equality and for officials to declare their assets.

Xu's lawyer Zhang Qingfang told Reuters he would meet Xu within the next two days to discuss whether to appeal.

"He said [in court] that the last remaining dignity of the Chinese legal system has been destroyed," Zhang said.

"It's not that we can't bear this result, but that fundamentally, the guilty conviction is illegal, is unreasonable and unfair.”

Human rights groups called for the verdict to be overturned, with Amnesty International describing it as “shameful but sadly predictable”.

Teng Biao, a co-founder of the movement and close friend of Xu’s, wrote on Twitter: “Dr Xu Zhiyong's sentence of four years tramples over rule of law and is a provocation to citizens … Prison never suppresses the people’s will to resist; but further ignites people's fervour to fight."

Xu refused to respond to prosecutors during the hearing, after the court refused to let his defence team bring any of their 68 witnesses.

But reading out a lengthy closing statement – cut short by judges after 10 minutes – he said: "Our actions did not violate the rights of any other person, nor did they bring harm to society.

"You say we harboured political purposes. Well we do, and our political purpose is very clear, and it is a China with democracy, rule of law, freedom, justice and love."

Both the hearing and the Sunday morning sentencing took place under heavy security. The court barred diplomats from attending and police and plainclothes officers shoved and manhandled journalists outside the courthouse.

It was the highest profile case of its kind since a Beijing court jailed writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo for 11 years on subversion charges in 2009. Liu, who had co-authored and promoted Charter 08, a call for democratic reforms, was subsequently awarded the Nobel peace prize.

Roseann Rife, east asia research director of Amnesty International, said: “The Chinese authorities have once again opted for the rule of fear over the rule of law.

“At best the injustice of prosecuting Xu Zhiyong is hypocrisy of the highest order. On the surface his calls to expose corruption coincide with president Xi Jinping’s own much-heralded clampdown.”

“But the message sent from the courtroom today runs far deeper: in Xi Jinping ’s China, the Communist party maintains a monopoly on the political process and anyone that speaks out will be severely dealt with.”

The trial took place in the week that the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, the Guardian and other media partners revealed the offshore holdings of relatives of current and former Chinese leaders.

Xu and his colleagues avoided formal structures, seeking to create a loose grouping without leaders. Members met at informal dinners and a few held peaceful street protests. But the popularity of the movement – which attracted hundreds and perhaps even thousands – appears to have alarmed authorities who fear organisation.

The last year has seen a broader crackdown on dissent and civil society, with increased restrictions on the internet, the targeting of influential voices and of advocates for minority rights.

Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said: “This is a carefully crafted political sentence designed to send a message. The government is drawing a line.

“The fact he is not getting the maximum sentence [of five years] is designed to convey the impression his sentence was somehow weighed by the court. It looks more like a premeditated outcome to give the impression the government showed a modicum of leniency and that there was a real legal process– which is obviously a lie.”

Corruption in China (15 October 2013)

The image that the many people in the west have of China is of an austere communist country which is rigidly controlled by a political system that always puts the collective good - above the rights or interests of the individual.

Hence China's 'one child per family policy' which Sky News exposed as operating in a particularly brutal way last week - and which will probably result in the news channel having its reporting privileges in China removed or severely restricted.

But here's a news story from the Telegraph newspaper which portrays China in a  very different light - one where political corruption is rife and where the Communist Party is used as a political vehicle for self-advancement and private gain. 

Now that may be the same throughout the world since political partiers are often used quite cynically by people to advance their own self-interests - but the difference in China is that as a one party state there are no other checks and balances in the system - no other parties or independent minds to whom ordinary people can take their complaints and/or campaign for change. 

Daughter of 'Butcher of Tiananmen Square' brokered secret deal for insurance giant

EXCLUSIVE: A secret deal that helped Zurich Insurance break into the Chinese market could come under investigation

Li Xiaolin, who brokered the multi-million pound deal Photo: GETTY IMAGES

By Malcolm Moore, in Beijing and Raf Sanchez in Fairfax County, Virginia

A secret multi-million pound deal to carve up China's insurance market, brokered by the daughter of the country's former prime minister, has been sent to anti-corruption investigators.

The deal guaranteed Zurich Insurance, one of the world's largest financial institutions, a hugely lucrative stake in a major Chinese insurance company at a time when foreign firms were barred from investing in the sector.

The deal, which came to light during a court case in the United States, was cut at the very highest level of the Communist party, by the daughter of the prime minister at the time, Li Peng.

The documents and transcripts from the court, obtained by the Telegraph, give a fresh insight into the relationship between money and power in China, and the "hurdles" western businesses have had to leap to establish themselves in the world's second-largest economy.

The revelations also come in the midst not only of one of the fiercest anti-corruption campaigns in years, but also at a time when foreign firms are under particular scrutiny, with Chinese investigators already lookinginto alleged malpractice at GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, and Danone, the French food group.

In 1995, Li Xiaolin, now one of China's most powerful women in her own right, introduced executives from Zurich to three Chinese businessmen who held a majority stake in New China Life, the country's largest private insurance company.

In return for a $16.9 million (£10.4 million) payment into an offshore Credit Suisse account in the Bahamas, they agreed to sell Zurich almost a quarter of the company, four years before it was legal for foreign firms to make such investments.


Court documents and transcripts obtained by the Telegraph show how the money from Zurich was then used to bribe several high-ranking Communist party officials, who allegedly received thousands of dollars of "pocket money" when they visited the United States.

There is no suggestion that Zurich was aware of how the money was subsequently spent.

A spokesman for the company said its shareholding in New China Life "is in compliance with the relevant laws in China and China Insurance Regulatory Commission regulations". He added: "Beyond this, we do not have any further comments."

Many of the officials who received payments were directly responsible for deciding whether to allow foreign companies to enter China's financial sector.

In one case, a $600,000 house was bought for the use of the daughter of China's then Finance minister while she was studying in the US.

Zurich has reaped enormous profits from its stake in New China Life. After its initial payment to the Bahamas, it paid a further 51 million yuan in 2000, the equivalent at the time of just £6.7 million, for a 10 per cent stake in the company.

According to reports in the Chinese media, it spent a further 437.6 million yuan in 2004 (£29 million) to build that stake to 20 per cent.

As the value of the company soared, Zurich amassed £485 million from share sales. Its remaining 9.4 per cent of the company is worth roughly £600 million.

The deal was revealed in a legal battle between two of the businessmen that Zurich dealt with: 59-year-old Zhang Hongwei, now one of China's richest men, and his former employee, Bill Zhao.

In 2010, Mr Zhang accused Mr Zhao, a former Chinese government official who went on to work at the World Bank, of misappropriating some of the money that Zurich paid.

In the subsequent court battle, details of the fee and how it was spent, were aired in court.

Separately, another of Mr Zhang's former associates has reported the deal to the Communist party's anti-graft unit, the Commission for Discipline Inspection, as part of a raft of allegations against him.

In court, Bill Zhao explained how the deal with Zurich had first been raised at a state banquet for the Swiss president in October 1995.

Li Xiaolin had come to him, a former school friend, after the dinner and told him the chairman of Zurich was interested in breaking into the Chinese market.

"And she said, you know what, I think this could be a good opportunity for you guys trying to set up organising New China Life. And I said, it sounds pretty good. Let's do something," he said.

Mr Zhao put the idea to his boss, Zhang Hongwei, who ran a conglomerate called China Orient Group. After discussions in Beijing and Zurich, a contract was drawn up the following year.

"We did tell them that our role would be to assist Zurich to enter the Chinese market by helping them receive governmental approval," said Mr Zhang in court. He described the payment from Zurich as a "good faith fee" to demonstrate its commitment.

A legal opinion from Beijing's Tianyin law firm, submitted to the US court, said the deal was in breach of the law: "It was in violation of the relevant regulations whereby the transaction was not enforceable and the seller's receipt of the payment for the stock purchase by the buyer was not legal".

The law firm added that, by keeping the money from Zurich offshore and not sending it back to the mainland, China Orient Group had also broken China's foreign exchange rules.

"This is an under-the-table deal. You can call it bribery," said Hugh Mo, a lawyer for Mr Zhao, in his closing arguments, referring to the USD16.9 million payment.

"You can call it, you know, illicit funds. You can call it, let's say, you know, to grease the wheel. You can even say that it's to lobby or to facilitate the Zurich Insurance Company to enter China's insurance market."

In court, Mr Zhang's lawyer said there had not been "any evidence to show that the transaction was illegal" but did not dispute that the money had been paid by Zurich.

The documents also reveal how the families of the leaders most closely associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre have gone on to reap enormous rewards for keeping the Communist party in power.

Li Xiaolin's father, Li Peng, became known as the "Butcher of Tiananmen".

He ordered the tanks to move in, albeit at the behest of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Li Xiaolin and her brother, Li Xiaopeng, came to control the power industry. Last year, the New York Times revealed that the family of Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister who was also closely involved in handling the student protests, had a fortune of $2.7 billion, also mainly from the insurance industry.

The US court heard that some of the money from Zurich was transferred to the United States where it was used to buy an apartment block, to fund the education and visas for Mr Zhang's three children, and to "ingratiate, lobby and influence high-level Chinese officials".

Cheques were produced in court to show payments to Chinese officials, including the purchase of a house for the use of the daughter of the then Finance minister, Xiang Huaicheng, while she studied at an American university.

Tian Fengshan, the former Land and Resources minister who was given a life sentence for corruption in 2005, was given $10,000 of "pocket money" when he visited the US in 1998.

Another payment allegedly went to Ma Mingjia, who ran the insurance department of the People's Bank of China and another to Huang Mengfu, the vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), a political advisory group which Mr Zhang sits on.

Mr Zhang denied that he had authorised any of the payments, but admitted that his company had a policy of entertaining senior officials. In his deposition, Mr Zhang said that he might have asked for some money to be given to Mr Huang. "Possible, but how much, I don't remember," he said.

A spokesman for Mr Zhang said: "China Orient Group did not sell any shares of New China Life to Zurich Insurance."

The dispute between Mr Zhang and Mr Zhao is currently at an appeal stage at the Supreme Court in Virgina. Mr Zhao is disputing an earlier court judgment that found him in breach of fiduciary duty in relation to the management of the American branch of the Orient Group. He has been cleared of four other charges.