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US envoy cautious over hopes for China reforms
by Staff Writers
Hong Kong (AFP) Feb 5, 2013

10 Chinese jailed for detaining petitioners: media
Beijing (AFP) Feb 5, 2013 - Ten people who detained citizens trying to lodge complaints against Chinese authorities have been sent to prison, state media said Tuesday, in a rare gesture towards upholding petitioners' rights.

Under China's ancient petitioning system, individuals can ask Beijing to investigate disputes such as land grabs and unpaid wages, but local governments regularly hire "interceptors" to physically prevent complaints being filed.

Bureaucrats face threats to their careers if too many complaints are made from their areas, and petitioners are regularly detained in secret facilities known as "black jails" to stop them doing so.

The defendants, all from Henan, held the petitioners -- from the same central province -- for up to six days in the capital in April last year before themselves being arrested, state-run news agency Xinhua said.

Wang Gaowei and nine accomplices "infringed the personal rights of the 11 petitioners, which constituted the crime of false imprisonment", it cited the court as saying. They were jailed for between six months and two years.

It was not yet clear whether the case represented a significant step towards guaranteeing petitioners' rights, said Hong Kong-based human rights researcher Joshua Rosenzweig.

"It remains to be seen whether this is the first in a series of cases like this, in which case we will look back at this as a significant step," he said.

"There are not only 10 people involved in the interception of petitioners."

Immense pressure on local politicians to "maintain stability" -- the official euphemism used to describe clamping down on dissent -- means that incentives to suppress petitioners remain.

"There is a climate in which the priority has been placed on maintaining stability at the local level... which is part of the reason why (local officials) are so anxious to take petitioners out of Beijing," Rosenzweig said.

The Beijing Youth Daily, which reported the case last year, cited petitioners as saying their interceptors had beaten them and wore badges identifying them with the Henan government.

Despite years of calls for China to shut down its "black jails", including from the country's media, rights groups continue to report frequent cases of petitioners being illegally detained and physically assaulted.

The US ambassador to China expressed caution Tuesday over hopes for reform under Beijing's new leadership and said the mainland should turn to Hong Kong for inspiration.

Gary Locke told an economic conference in Hong Kong that the US-China relationship remains "fundamentally very, very strong" but said the world's second-largest economy could only benefit from further liberalisation.

"Hong Kong is an excellent example of what can be done and how important it is to lead in the economic realm with the principles of openness, freedom and transparency," he told the conference, organised by US bank Goldman Sachs.

"It is also an example that China can learn from and in doing so, optimise China's own progress and development," he said.

Locke, a former US commerce secretary and the first Chinese American to hold the post, remained cautious when asked about the prospects of reform under China's newly elected Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is set to take over as president in March.

"I believe everyone inside and outside of China is very hopeful but time will only tell, so we're going to have to wait for several months or even a year to really see what the priorities are (for the new leadership)," he said.

Xi was seen to be signalling a push for economic reforms when he chose to visit the southern boomtown of Shenzhen in his first official trip as the ruling party leader in December, where he vowed to continue "reform and opening".

But Locke said that many industries had expressed concerns over restrictions on investment in China, which they felt were "very troublesome".

Foreign direct investment in China declined for the first time in three years in 2012, official data showed, and some US businesses have linked it to investment barriers.

Ownership restrictions are imposed in a large number of sectors, although Beijing has moved to ease these limitations.

Hong Kong, a former British colony which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, maintains a semi-autonomous status with its own legal and financial system, as well as a separate currency and free economy.

"I think we really need to try to push for even further opening because it's in the economic self-interest of the Chinese people and the Chinese government," Locke said.

A third-generation Chinese American whose grandfather emigrated to the US, Locke created a buzz in Beijing when he took the US envoy role in 2011 and was nicknamed "the backpacker" for his frugal travelling habits.

He arrived in Beijing carrying his own luggage and in a regular car, with little of the ceremony that usually surrounds Chinese dignitaries abroad.


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