HONG KONG, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- The U.S. State Department has once again painted a damning portrait of China's government as harsh, authoritarian and bent on restricting freedoms in order to retain power. But observers point out social pressures are eroding the government's hard-line stance, and that freedoms are burgeoning out of official control.
The U.S. annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices in China, released Feb. 25, acknowledged "rising urban living standards; greater independence for entrepreneurs; the reform of the public sector ... and expansion of the non-state sector increased workers' employment options and significantly reduced state control over citizens' daily lives."
The majority of the report reads as a litany of abuses, including "arrests of individuals discussing sensitive subjects on the Internet, health activists, labor protesters, defense lawyers, journalists, house church members, and others seeking to take advantage of the space created by reforms."
The evidence is there, documented extensively in the 54,700-word report. China is not a country where one would want to draw attention from public security forces by trying to register a political party or start a movement, even online. Nor would one want to end up in the opaque court system or the dark, medieval prison system where people are routinely beaten, sometimes to death.
Yes, say China supporters, old habits die hard, but the key word in the above quote is "space." Society has become more porous, they argue, and though people do get caught in the nets cast by suspicious and conservative officials, the majority has more freedom than ever before to read, think and discuss, if not to publish their views.
"The social environment is opening up," said a Chinese journalist, who preferred not to be named despite her insistence she enjoys greater freedom of expression than before. "People have more space to live, to breathe, to think, to express themselves. This is the result of the flow of information, from the Internet, from people who have been abroad. There is more exchange with the outside world, and no one can stop it."
Greater exposure to the world through travel, television and the Internet has created a sizeable population with its own views. Chinese citizens are even beginning to see human rights as something that might benefit them, rather than a foreign strategy aimed at dominating them, as the government has routinely intoned.
"The Chinese government is paying attention to human rights, even if they don't mean the same thing we do. The evidence is that when leaders go abroad they always emphasize that they are trying to improve human rights," said Chloe Froissart, a research fellow at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong.
"They know what is expected. At least when they are cracking down on people, when they're putting them in prison, when they're shooting people, they do it with a bad conscience. This is a very big difference from the past," she added.
This of course is little comfort to the victims of the crackdowns. There are some sensitive areas that remain off limits. Certain key words draw the ire of Internet police, for example. They include "democracy," " Falun Gong," "Tibet, " and "Taiwan independence," among others. Writing regularly about these sensitive topics can have dire consequences.
The State Department report said 48 people have been imprisoned for their online writing since the appearance of the Internet. It describes an incident last May in which Sichuan Web site manager Huang Qi and students associated with his New Youth Study Group were arrested and sentenced to prison for advocating democracy online.
In another case, 22-year-old Beijing Normal University Student Liu Di was arrested after defying police warnings to stop writing anti-government articles. According to Human Rights Watch, in her Web essays she naively urged readers to "ignore government propaganda and live freely" and to spread "reactionary" ideas via the Internet.
Liu and two others were released on bail in November, having spent a year in prison without trial for their subversive Internet activities.
The State Department further reports, "The government continued and intensified efforts to monitor and control use of the Internet and other wireless technology including cellular phones, pagers, and instant messaging devices."
This is an area where sheer numbers may thwart the government's efforts at control.
Monitoring the country's nearly 80 million Internet users and 276.8 million cell phone owners may be an impossible task. In January, the month of Chinese New Year, Xinhua news agency reported that 15.7 billion messages were sent via cell phone.
There are huge gaps between the urban middle class and the rural poor, as the report noted, and poor migrant workers are at the bottom of the social order. But with more than 100 million of them invading the cities in search of work, their situation has demanded attention.
In what the report describes as "significant legal reforms," last year the government abolished the practice of "custody and detention" for migrant workers who caused trouble or traveled without identification. Reforms also expanded legal aid, banned extended detention, and established the rights of migrants to basic social services including education and health care.
Froissart, who is conducting research into the plight of migrant populations in China, said that social pressures have led local authorities to recognize the link between respecting people's rights and maintaining social stability.
"Their way of thinking is not like our way of thinking," pointed out Froissart. "We have the Enlightenment view, that people have rights because they are human beings. For the Chinese it's not a moral reflection, it comes from more practical considerations -- economic and social stability."
Whether responding to internal or external pressures is unclear, but central party members last fall drafted an amendment to include protection of human rights in the national constitution. The National People's Congress is expected to approve the amendment when it meets next month. It's not sure what the real impact will be, however.
"When the Soviet Union signed the International Convention on Human Rights, their human rights record in fact deteriorated," said Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. "It depends on their sincerity. If they see it as a tactic, it may well be a problem. Also, when they add the phrase 'with Chinese characteristics,' God knows what it means. It's actually a denial of international standards."