Civil society defending Iraq’s fragile democracy

Does Nouri al-Maliki’s power grab in Iraq represent “a commendable consolidation of power rather than the alarming signs of incipient authoritarianism”?

Analysts may differ in their assessments, but a new Human Rights Watch report provides cause for alarm over the government’s political direction:

Credit: Human Rights Watch

Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone (right), based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.

Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held. RTWT

On the frontline of defending political space and often bearing the brunt of regime crackdowns,  Iraq’s embryonic civil society has quickly become a key player in advancing democratization, notes Jamie Biglow of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center:

Human rights organizations have moved from simply educating people about their rights to monitoring rights violations. A few think tanks have emerged. Activists are moving from protesting in the street to advocating policy. Groups are fighting for a legal framework for independent media. They have seen a lot of coordination across the country and across sectarian divides. All these different sectors and institutions have come together with one goal: building a democratic country.

Biglow recently discussed developments in Iraq, the wider region and democracy in general with members of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Middle East and North Africa program team: Rahman Aljebouri, Senior Program Officer; Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer; and Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer. The team works on programs supporting civil society organizations working on human rights, accountability, and democratic reform in Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf. The following is an extract of their discussion:

What do you believe is at the heart of democracy?

A democratic society is a place where your opinions count and institutions of governance work; where there is accountability and clear rules of the game; where people are free to speak their mind, and there is a legal framework that helps them speak their mind. You need a healthy political system, a vibrant civil society, a strong labor movement, and a private sector; the combination of all will produce a place where people are respected, heard, and safe. A place where people can live their everyday lives without fear. -Rahman Aljebouri.

Democracy means that people’s opinions and their aspirations are taken into consideration in a respectful and accountable way. It means governance, rule of law, and having institutions and a political process that assure these are upheld. -Hanane Zelouani Idrissi, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa

For me, the core concept of democracy is that a people collectively decide their own political destiny. -Geoffrey King, Assistant Program Officer: Middle East & North Africa

How does this translate into practice in Iraq?

In Iraq, the Endowment focuses its small grants to local, non-governmental institutions working on human rights, government accountability, and legislative advocacy. The Endowment has a truly unique approach: rather than design its own programs, the Endowment responds to the self-declared needs, aspirations, and demands of local organizations. They place emphasis on the institutional development of these local actors to consolidate the long-term sustainability of Iraqi civil society. As a result, the Endowment’s MENA program has room for adaptation and can change its strategies as the issues evolve, while encouraging the democratic process. Their model promotes the ideal of a vibrant, locally driven Iraqi civil society.

In short: the Endowment’s dynamic and flexible character allows it to change its strategies with the changing needs of the Iraqi people.

One of the hallmarks of democracy is that there is room for debate and a range of opinions, and I certainly have mine. But in democracy promotion, impartiality and careful balancing are critical. The Endowment works with organizations from lots of different communities and political tendencies, and always avoids “picking a side” with either funding or advocacy.

As Hanane explained it: “The key to our neutrality is that they are coming to us.” That is to say, the Endowment doesn’t cherry pick their candidates based on a preconceived set of ideals. Applicants approach the Endowment as a source of funding, and the Endowment is able to grant or deny funding based solely on the applicants’ potential to promote democracy.

I look at the work we do as means driven rather than ends driven. We are trying to assist these groups in connecting the dots, to facilitate their work on the democratic process. As long as a strong civil society rooted in international norms can be a watchdog for the democratic process itself, they will be improving their societies to whatever end they see fit. To us, perfecting the means is the end game. To what political end? That’s up to them. -Geoffrey King

Democracy in Iraq is starting to take hold, but Rahman and others at the Endowment still do not consider Iraq a democracy. Iraqis still lack an independent media, security, and a culture of democratic institutions.

Civil society organization themselves are increasingly threatened by a lack of funding and political restrictions, and sometimes struggle to remain mission driven. In certain regions, political leaders distrust civil society. Visa problems and language barriers present significant roadblocks to finding funding from the international community. Furthermore, because there is such a high demand for support from the Endowment (300-400 applications a year!) coming from Iraq, sometimes it can be a challenge to strategically identify where to intervene and what to prioritize.

Despite the challenges, Iraqi civil society has made inspiring strides. In recognition of that progress, the Endowment has changed its tactics. In the immediate post-invasion years, Iraqi civil society focused on civic education and humanitarian assistance. Recently, the vanguard groups have shifted to government accountability and legislative advocacy. Rahman, Hanane, and Geoffrey highlighted examples of the strides made by Iraqi civil society over the past few years.

We have been seeing a lot of sectors working together – this is an important part of democracy… In the last 10 years, they have made 20 years of progress! -Rahman Aljebouri.

With modest funding, NED supports nearly 50 mission-driven local Iraqi organizations working to consolidate democracy. Founded in 1983 under the Reagan administration, the Endowment is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the strengthening of democratic institutions across the world. The Endowment is steadfastly bipartisan: it was founded with bipartisan support and was closely followed by the creation of the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), all of which were joined by a labor institute already in existence, known as the Solidarity Center, which ensures political balance. The Endowment receives its funding annually through a congressional appropriation.

Behind the founding and the direction of the Endowment is the idea that freedom is an aspiration shared by all, and a democratic government is the best way to ensure that aspiration. As their Statement of Principles and Objectives (1984) states, “Democracy involves the right of the people to freely determine their own destiny.”

RTWT

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Demography driving Arab Awakening’s democratic prospects?

There’s a compelling reason why Tunisia is the Arab state most likely to become a democracy, why Egypt and Libya have “a fighting chance” of transition, why prospects for Yemen and Syria are far less promising and why “there’s no point in talking about transition” to stable democracy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Drawing on a study of revolutions between 1972 and 1989, demographer Richard Cincotta of the Washington-based Stimson Center found that autocracies with a median population age between 25 and 35 had the best chances of democratizing:

All of the countries that made the transition when their median age was greater than 30 are still democracies today. Nine out of 10 countries with a median age less than 25 slid back into oppressive regimes following revolution. Any older than 35 and revolutions did not occur in the first place. The only other indicator that came close to predicting transition success with the same level of accuracy was wealth per capita.

If the pattern holds, Tunisia – with a median age of 30 – is the Arab Spring country most likely to hold a democracy permanently. Egypt and Libya have median ages of 25 and 26, respectively, giving them a fighting chance of moving to democracy in the next few years, according to Cincotta. But Syria and Yemen – at 21 and 17, respectively – will be lucky to end up with even partial democracies, he says.

Older populations are associated with mature, complex societies, says Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

As societies mature and acquire the institutions and infrastructures of developed nations – urbanisation, higher income, women’s rights and education to name a few – birth rates tend to drop, and the median age goes up (see diagram). All these factors reinforce each-other, says Bar-Yam. At the same time, a complex societal infrastructure is key for a country to make the transition from revolutionary chaos to a newly organised democracy, he says. Under the right conditions, a new leadership can be slotted in at the top of existing infrastructure without too much disruption.

Trust is another key factor, says Jack Goldstone of George Mason University, as mutual trust is less likely in a young population, which inclines towards suspicion of government:

States across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East that perform poorly in indexes of state fragility also tend to have the youngest populations. “This could be just an unhappy coincidence,” said Goldstone, “but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. I think what we’re seeing is a kind of virtuous and vicious circle.”

“Where government is weak, ineffective, doesn’t provide education, doesn’t provide security, it’s advantageous both for individuals and for groups to have larger families,” he said. “However, as population grows, it’s more difficult for the government to provide adequate education and security for the larger, more youthful population.”

“On the other hand, if you can get on the track for a stronger, more legitimate government – a government that’s able to provide education, provide security of property, [and] encourage investment…fertility tends to drop quickly.” “This in turn re-enforces the ability of governments to direct resources to education and economic growth.”

“Mobilization for political conflict draws heavily on youthful populations,” said Goldstone, citing research by Henrik Urdal demonstrating that a bulge in the youth demographic appears to increase the risk of conflict:

However, this relationship is strongly mediated by regime type. While strong democracies and autocracies are considered relatively stable, there is a “risk zone” in between, where instability is more likely.

“We live in a world where the countries with weak, fragile governments [are] about a third of the global population. But in another 30 years, if things remain as they are in terms of governance, you’re looking at closer to half the world’s population living in those more difficult circumstances,” he said.

“If the democracy is not well established, if rule of law is not well regulated, than people don’t necessary trust the outcome of peaceful electoral competition,” said Goldstone. “If people don’t like the outcome of an election, or they feel they’re being excluded, or things are one sided, they may mobilize.” This lack of political trust can result in instability and violence such as the recent protests by Thailand’s “red shirts.”

“There are two big challenges posed by global demography,” said Goldstone.

First, “given that 90 percent of today’s youth are in developing nations, providing them with opportunities to become productive adults through education, stable environment, [and] socialization is crucial,” he contends.

Second, in order to deliver those services, “strengthening governance in the countries where those youth live, in order for those education, security, and social services to be provided,” is essential for securing economic development and political stability.

Algeria and Morocco will change within the coming years, Cincotta says, followed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan in the 2020s:

Revolutions are likely in sub-Saharan Africa, where most regimes are oppressive and most countries’ median age is younger than 20. “But there’s no point in talking about transition to democracy because fertility there is so high,” says Jennifer Sciubba of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Unless birth rates decline, she says, Africa is doomed to continuous revolts for decades to come.

RTWT

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Coming ‘guerrilla battle’ between women and political Islam?

Political forces in the Arab world are gearing up for a “guerrilla battle between Islamists and women,” says a leading analyst.

That may seem unlikely in a region where women have fewer political rights and economic opportunities. While East Asia has the highest rate of women starting and running businesses, the lowest is in the Arab world, the Arab International Women’s Forum heard this week.

But a new generation of Arab women is demanding both political rights and socio-economic empowerment, from the right to drive and take leadership in conservative Islamist parties to starting enterprises and forming labor unions, according to a must-read Financial Times survey of Women in the Arab Awakening.

“It was not the image the world was accustomed to. Long perceived as second-class citizens in their own countries, Arab women were suddenly propelled to the forefront of social activism in the Arab Awakening that has swept the region over the past 16 months,” writes Roula Khalaf.

Arab women’s critical contribution received global recognition with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Yemen’s Tawakul Karman,* but less celebrated activists laid the ground for recent transitions.

“Even before a young Tunisian fruit vendor set himself on fire and sparked a wave of uprisings across north Africa and the Middle East, Azza Maghur (left) was a thorn in the side of the regime of Col Muammer Gaddafi,” writes Borzou Daragahi:

Maghur was long a daring human rights activist, by Libyan standards. Late in 2010, she presented a lecture in Tripoli and published an article in a newspaper about what she called “shadow civil society”, the constellation of Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and blogs that sprang up in repressive countries.

Her activism led to an interrogation by Libya’s feared intelligence services.

“There were six men,” she recalls. “Gaddafi told them to summon me because he hated civil society. This phrase was banned in Gaddafi’s Libya.”

Libya’s transition has empowered illiberal groups that may yet reverse fragile, tentative gains for women’s rights and democracy, she fears.

“There are bad indications,” she says. “But I think when we talk about democratization, you cannot predict what’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. You have to work hard for democracy.”

Libya’s transition is just one indication that “as the region stumbles towards a new political order, translating the empowerment of women into long-term social, political and economic gains will be a struggle,” Khalaf warns. “In some cases, protecting the rights won in recent years could prove difficult.”

As Nehad Abul Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, says: “Egyptian women today are more aware, stronger and more involved – like all Egyptians they are no longer afraid to raise their voices…..But on a policy makers’ level, it’s different – the revolution is an orphan, it’s blind, there is no vision or leadership on women’s rights.”

With Islamist groups in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt calling for the reform of personal status codes that enshrine women’s rights, “the spirit of solidarity and equality forged at a time of historic change is giving way to more traditional political manoeuvring and a return to deeply entrenched patriarchal customs,” Khalaf notes.

With Islamist parties making significant political gains and ultraconservative Salafi groups calling for the strict implementation of sharia, or Islamic law, the region seems set for a major showdown over women’s rights.

There will undoubtedly be a “guerrilla battle between Islamists and women”, predicts Nathan Brown, an expert on Islamist movements at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In hardline Islamist states like Saudi Arabia, individual women activists lack the support structures of a wider movement.

“The movement did not catch on because Saudi women still have so much fear of being visible,” says Hala al-Dosari, an activist and writer. “Activists don’t want to reveal their identity because the social and tribal setting is very restrictive. You’re not an individual, you’re part of a collective society where you can’t represent the voice of dissidents or you’ll be disowned.”

But the issue is more complex than a conflict between women’s rights and political Islam, says Khalaf.

“ The gains women want to safeguard were part of a top-down approach, often promoted by the first ladies of autocratic rulers whose primary objective was to improve their husbands’ image,” as in the case of Egypt’s “Suzanne’s laws,” initiated by then first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

“Women’s rights when granted in a top-down fashion are insecure,” says Isobel Coleman, author of Paradise Beneath Her Feet: How Women are Transforming the Middle East. Far more secure, she argues, are rights achieved through the reinterpretation of Islamic texts that give legitimacy to women’s empowerment.

“You need a national conversation about what is sharia,” says Ms Coleman. “This is a battle within Islam. It is playing out today in all debates and women are the most obvious debate.”

Morocco’s mudawana – or personal status code – may provide a model for a more credible strategy, as it resulted from both top-down initiative and bottom up mobilization.

“If Islamist parties want to have legitimacy, they must not forget that the people who took to the streets in the region did not go out to demand sharia law, but human rights and good governance, says Fouzia Assouli, president of Morocco’s Democratic League for Women’s Rights. “ If they forget that, they too will be wiped away by history.”

The Syrian opposition has thrown up no charismatic leaders like Karman, so “it is fitting that one of its most high-profile figures should be the softly-spoken human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh (right)” writes Fielding-Smith:

With an air of quiet stoicism beyond her years, Ms Zeitouneh, 35, knew before the revolution started what it was to persevere in holding the state to account. She worked on behalf of political prisoners and, in 2002, was told she could no longer leave the country.

Many of her fellow activists have been arrested, tortured or killed.

“All those activists, some of whom we know and others that we don’t, are creating a new history for their country and their region,” she wrote in an open letter to Anna Politkovskaya, the murdered Russian journalist, after receiving an award in her name from the British human rights group RAW in WAR (Reach All Women In War).

“They are creating a homeland and a future from the ashes of the violence carried out by one of the most notorious authoritarian regimes in the world.” In December, she also received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Award for Freedom of Thought.

Zeitouneh is assumed to be in hiding in Syria, representing a new generation of rights monitors that, according to Wissam Tarif, a researcher with the Avaaz campaign group, has sprung up “like mushrooms”.

“Prominent activists in the past who were willing to take the risk were very few – you knew them,” he says. “Now there are so many. They don’t necessarily have the big names or the diplomat and journalist networks, but they have access to affected communities.”

With only 25% of Arab women actively employed in the labor market, groups like the Education for Employment network are making a difference:

Strengthening the rights of women in the informal economy would be one way to improve their economic empowerment, analysts say. There is also a need to give women better access to credit to try to boost entrepreneurialism.

But improving structural conditions to make existing employment opportunities more attractive to women is also seen as vital, whether it is creating safe, affordable public transport or reforming workplace regulations.

“We have started a labour rights programme specifically for the needs of women, because employers were making them work overtime, and that particularly affects women,” Ms Di Florio of EFE says.

“The one-man tyrannies have been toppled. But a moment in Tunisia just a few weeks ago – when a lone woman named Khaoula Rachidi (left) dared confront an Islamic activist (see video above) – crystallised the struggle that may shape the Arab world for years to come, while illustrating women’s power,” writes Borzou Daragahi:

During a raucous demonstration on March 7 by ultraconservative Islamist activists at the university in Manouba, a burly, bearded Salafist climbs to the top of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities building and begins ripping down the country’s red and white flag. He tries to replace it with a black shahada banner sometimes associated with al-Qaeda.

A group of students gasps in dismay at the gesture, some of them filming it with their mobile phone cameras or chanting slogans.

Suddenly, a woman, who was later identified as Ms Rachidi, clambers up to the rooftop. The master’s degree student of French rushes over to the man and demands that he stop. He grabs her and hurls her to the ground, but she bounces back without pause.

At this point other students, inspired by Ms Rachidi, climb the rooftop and stop the Salafist.

But Islamists are not the only threat to women’s rights and democracy, say activists.

“I don’t share the Islamophobia,” says Sally Toma, a Coptic Christian activist in the Egyptian Social Democratic party. “Many women have been liberated by taking part in the revolution, including those who wear Islamic headscarves and even the niqab [face veil].

“We are pushing and our day will come. No one will be able to force Egyptian women to do anything against their will. We have broken the barrier of caring what people will say if we go out on the street.”

She also points out that it is not just the Islamists who marginalise women, and that parties which bill themselves as modernist and progressive fielded very few women in the parliamentary election.

“Women here are fighting against the military and against a society that is patriarchal, not one that is Islamic,” she says.

Indeed, in Yemen it was a conservative female Islamist who provided the spark and key leadership for the pro-democracy protests that eventually prompted the current transition.

“Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi may have replaced the autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh as president of Yemen, but a 33-year-old mother of three is the star of the uprising,” writes Abigail Fielding-Smith.

Tawakul Karman, a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah, was an experienced campaigner when the winds of change blew from north Africa to Yemen in early 2011.

Her relationship with Islah is not straightforward – she clashed with its conservative wing a few years ago over its opposition to raising the minimum age for marriage (about a quarter of girls under 15 are married in Yemen). But for some, campaigning against such regressive norms under the umbrella of an Islamist party is a contradiction.

Bushra al Maqtari, a feminist writer, says: “She can speak to the emotion of the people, but I don’t think she can bring the necessary social and political change that Yemen needs.”

Farea al Muslimi, a young activist, argues that real change in Yemen needs both Ms Karman, within the religious establishment, as well as figures outside it.

“You need Tawakul to stay in Islah, and not leave it to Salafists [religious extremists],” he says, “and people like Bushra can work with people who are less Islamist.”

Read the rest.

“A few years ago, Ala’a Shehabi (right), daughter of one of Bahrain’s most famous dissidents, was just another academic,” writes Simeon Kerr:

She was brought up in London, where her father, Saeed Shehabi, remained when other exiled political leaders returned to Bahrain after King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa introduced political reforms in 2001.

In 2009, she returned to her homeland to teach economics at a banking institute. She married and had a son. But for the 31-year-old, like so many others, the Arab spring changed everything…..

“This revolution has empowered women who were forced out into the streets during the crackdown, because so many men were arrested or in hiding,” she says.

Ms Shehabi has established a website, Bahrain Watch, which tracks implementation of reforms, as well as the regime’s attempts to improve Bahrain’s image abroad.

RTWT.

Karman’s Women Journalists Without Chains, a Sana’a-based NGO, and many other Arab women’s groups are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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Economic frailties undermining autocratic social pacts?

If “economics is politics” in China, does the same hold true for Russia?

Both regimes rely on a form of performance-based legitimacy underpinning an authoritarian pact in which citizens have ceded political rights for rising living standards, personal security and political stability. But is that social compact now under threat as the economic growth on which it is predicated appears increasingly fragile?

“What is good politics for the Communist Party is no longer good economics for the country,” writes Dr. John Lee, an adjunct associate professor at Sydney University Centre for International Security Studies, and a visiting senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Will China Fail? (CIS, 2007).

“As the Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng episodes show, politics in China can be brutal,” writes Lee, author of Will China Fail?

“For the Chinese Communist Party, an enduring social compact with its people is still a long way off. When it comes to economic management, though, the assumption is that China’s authoritarian leaders are streets ahead, since they have to deliver prosperity to remain in power,” he observes. “So when industrial production falls, fixed-asset investment and retail spending slows, and home sales plummet, Beijing worries.”

China’s economic growth rate fell to 8.1% in the first quarter of this year, the lowest level since the spring of 2009, and prominent analysts are marking down projections for second-quarter and full-year growth, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Over the long term, China wants to shift the economy away from a reliance on exports and investment, toward domestic consumption, even if that means somewhat slower growth. But Beijing has a more pressing short-term goal: Keep growth high enough so unemployment doesn’t surge. That is a particular concern this year as China makes its once-in-a-decade leadership change, a process that already has been marred by the turmoil surrounding the ouster of Politburo member Bo Xilai.

Russia’s authoritarian social pact is also at risk from a floundering economy, say analysts.

Capital flight is a “serious problem,” Russia’s top central banker warned this week, as newly released statistics revealed that at least $42 billion fled the country in the first four months of the year.

“Russia, despite the generally positive domestic backdrop and very cheap asset base, is viewed as being the most at-risk economy in the world,” said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Troika Dialog, an investment bank in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency has been followed by a rash of proposed economic measures that have drawn comparison with Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward but failed to reassure potential investors:

While the new government still has to reveal many policies, market participants say they have been unimpressed or alarmed by what they have seen so far. A flurry of decrees issued by Mr. Putin on everything from cutting corruption to raising life expectancy within his six-year presidential term drew scorn from a leading think tank.

“Goals which, under present conditions, could realistically be accomplished in 10 to 15 years are packed into a mere six, trampling the laws of economic development and nature,” wrote Natalia Akindinova of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

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Party veterans’ ‘rare sign of open opposition’ is ‘latest sign of disunity’ in China’s ruling elite

A group of Communist Party veterans has written an audacious open letter demanding the removal of two of China’s most powerful leaders in a “rare sign of open opposition” within the ruling party elite. The letter – “the latest sign of disunity ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition” – calls for the resignation of the country’s head of domestic security boss, Zhou Yongkang (right), and a senior propaganda official, Liu Yunshan.

One of the country’s top nine leaders, hardliner Zhou was a close ally of Bo Xilai, the neo-Maoist party leader whose recent ouster highlighted a fierce ideological struggle within the ruling party and prompted the country’s biggest political scandal in decades.

“Facts that are coming to light now, prove the behaviour of Bo Xilai did not lead to ordinary mistakes, but to serious crimes,” the letter said.

“People like Zhou Yongkang, not only took part in Bo Xilai’s plan for the ‘Chongqing model’, but helped push it forward and gave it active support. He should not be allowed to escape his crimes.”

The letter, published on several foreign websites, “is an audacious step in China, where open dissent or organised criticism of top leaders is usually severely punished,” AFP reports.

Zhao Zhengrong, a retired anti-corruption official from the southwestern province of Yunnan, told AFP he and 15 other party members had sent the letter advocating Zhou’s removal to higher authorities.
“We are demanding this because Zhou Yongkang directed the ‘Chongqing model’ and supported Bo Xilai. They are liars, they are of the same ilk,” Zhao said.

Rights activists accused Zhou of orchestrating the judiciary and police to aid Bo’s extra-legal “Red Terror” campaign against crime in Chongqing that also served to disguise a crackdown on political dissent.

“Bo Xilai’s attack on the mafia depended on the judicial system under the leadership of Zhou Yongkang, including the police, courts and the prosecution,” retired Shandong University professor Sun Wenguang told AFP.

“The methods they were using to attack the mafia were destroying judicial independence and judicial fairness. This led to a lot of unjust trials and further spread terror throughout society.”

Sun said Zhou was probably consulted on the cases of leading rights activists including Chen Guangcheng (left), a recipient of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award, jailed 2010 Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and Gao Zhisheng.

“When they were striking at the mafia, they were also hitting out at those who held opposing views,” Sun said. “The dissidents and democracy activists, those with opposing views, were being grouped together with real criminals.”

China analyst Perry Link takes exception to the reported comment of a “relieved” American official about the case of the blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, specifically that “the days of blowing up the relationship over a single guy are over.”

The sentiment reveals “a serious misconception that has hampered United States-China policy for years,” writes Link, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside:

Chen Guangcheng, like other people who stand up to abuse in China, is not “a single guy.” Mr. Chen’s rights advocacy has earned him a considerable following in China, and last month his dramatic escape expanded that following many hundreds of times…..

For decades America’s managers of China policy have accepted the implicit demand of China’s rulers that they, and only they, are “China.” In diplomatic lingo, “the Chinese” view on anything — trade, Taiwan, Tibet, Syria, cyberwarfare, even human rights — is the view of the ruling circles, no matter how much it might diverge from currents in popular thought.

“Where will our ‘relationship’ be if, someday, China’s ruling group goes the way of other repressive authoritarian regimes and is no longer there?”

Recent events are raising politically salient and sensitive questions about the resilience of the much-vaunted China model, the must-read China Digital Times reports, including an inner-party debate over how to protect rights and check arbitrary power and whether Beijing squandering its ‘soft power’ investments:

As part of the run-up to the 18th Party Congress this fall and subsequent leadership transition, China Media Project analyzes a full-page spread in People’s Daily on political reform, which utilizes the catch-phrases, “protecting rights” and “checking power”:

In terms of breadth and boldness, the People’s Daily series is nothing to write home about. Most of the language is a song of self congratulation from China’s leaders about the progress they say they have already made on political reform.

On issues many would regard as fundamental to substantive and meaningful political reform, the People’s Daily series seems to shut the door. It says quite explicitly, for example, that “the leadership of the Party must be upheld”:

In actively and steadily promoting political reform we must uphold the fundamental political system and basic economic system of our country. We must uphold as one the three [principles of] the leadership of the Party, the people… [Read the whole entry.]

Is China Squandering its Soft Power Investments?

Following a series of damaging stories this year, notably the ousting of Bo Xilai and escape of Chen Guangcheng, The Atlantic’s Damien Ma argues that “for all the financial muscle thrown behind shaping its global image, Beijing may have squandered more soft power in the last few months than it has accrued in years“:

… The collective global attention paid to the world’s number-two economy has increased drastically in the media and within policy circles. Call it the “post-Olympics effect.” The triumphalism of the 2008 Beijing Games and the ensuing collapse of the global economy dramatically altered the extent and scope to which the world focused on China. Just a little over three years later, a “China story” is bound to splash across the front page of major U.S. papers week after week. The breadth and detail of coverage have increased significantly too. Many more Americans now likely know that there’s a gargantuan Chinese city called Chongqing and that its…

Read the whole entry »

China Digital Times is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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