Reborn civil society contests ‘Orwellian’ Putin’s Great Leap Forward

An ally of President Vladimir Putin is pushing to become Russia’s de facto deputy leader, marginalizing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Reuters reports.

The news coincides with reports of a rejuvenation of Russia civil society after some 10,000 protesters staged a mass “stroll” through central Moscow a week after a violent police crackdown on demonstrators criticizing Putin’s return to the presidency.

First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov (right) is calling for privatization and greater public spending, while fending off reports that corruption was a factor in his wife acquiring over $100 million from several investment deals with Russian oligarchs.

Putin’s ambitious new targets for economic growth have prompted skepticism from economists who suggest the decrees have all the credibility and coherence of Chinese Communist party leader Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

“Some goals which in the Russian reality are achievable in 10-15 years have been squeezed into the six-year presidential term, trampling the laws of nature and economic development,” said Natalya Akindinova, an analyst with the Development Centre think tank.

The “haste and arrogance” with which Putin is forming his government and churning out policy statements “underscore another Orwellian feature of the emerging landscape — the lack of any transparent and competitive process for public policy development,” Moscow-based analyst Vladimir Frolov suggests. “There is just one man with a fountain pen.”

Russia’s democratic opposition has yet to determine a strategic consensus for developing a convincing, coherent alternative to Putinism.

“Some democratic activists are working to achieve political power at the local level,” writes former Moscow correspondent David Satter. “Others may decide the best way to fight a pseudo-democracy is in the streets.”

In any event, a capacity to mobilize constituencies beyond the traditional urban liberal elite and nurture a genuinely vibrant civil society will be critical to the opposition’s chances of success, say analysts.

Sunday’s demonstration signals “the birth of civil society which we in Russia have always had such a hard time with,” said Lyudmila Ulitskaya, one of Russia’s best-known novelists, while other participants believe the event indicates a shift in elite opinion.

“The intelligentsia has woken up,” Vladimir Nikipolsky, a taxi driver and poet, said. “We can no longer live under feudalism.”

The protesters’ quiet dignity presented a sharp contrast to the regime’s violent rhetoric.

Riot police acted “too softly” when they violently suppressed last weekend’s demonstration, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Duma deputy Ilya Ponomaryov said Peskov told him the protesters should “have their livers smeared on the sidewalk“.

Such comments raise the question of how long Putin “will be able to use old techniques, political technologies, to keep the lid on the pressure cooker of discontent,” says analyst Andrew Wilson. “In the new situation the political and economic cost to Putin of continued repression is considerably higher, but, most importantly, the Grand Illusion, which kept the ratings high, is now over.”

Putin’s snub to the forthcoming G8 summit illustrates his intemperate reaction to the criticism of his re-assumption of the presidency, says Andrei Piontkovsky, a veteran political analyst.

“My reading of this is that Mr. Putin was so obsessed with the unfavorable reaction of Muscovites to his coronation that he had to find some whipping boys,” he said.

Even though Putin hand-picked Medvedev for the presidency in 2008 when he ran up against term limits, he resented Medvedev’s ascent.

“Kicking Mr. Medvedev off to America just when he is supposed to be deciding on the Cabinet demonstrates to everyone, to the public, to the elites, to everyone seeking any kind of position, that he’s the boss and he’s the only person who matters,” added Piontkovsky, a former Reagan Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Putin’s “rude rebuff” to the Obama administration-hosted G8 summit suggests that “maybe it’s time to put human rights in Russia back on the agenda,” writes the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl.

He is critical of the administration’s opposition to the Magnitsky bill, designed to penalize Russian officials associated with the killing of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who exposed a $230?million embezzlement scheme implicating Russian tax and interior ministry officials. The bill will deny those officials U.S. visa rights, freeze their assets in U.S. banks and require the same penalties for other Russian officials complicit in human rights violations.

“This sanction strikes at the heart of the web of corruption around Putin,” says Diehl.

But one leading Russia analyst believes a deeper and wider accountability is needed before Russia

“Putin’s apparent desire to rule for life is leading his country toward a dangerous political confrontation,” writes Satter, the author of It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, (Yale University Press, 2011).

The regime’s political base and legitimacy are narrower and more fragile than before, he suggests, even though Putin was reportedly elected president with 63.8% of the vote:

But a count carried out by the Golos Association, a Russian nonprofit founded in 2000 to protect the electoral rights of citizens, showed that the real figure was 50.75%. Even this could not have been achieved without banning many opposition candidates and putting the entire government at the service of Mr. Putin’s campaign. In the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, the pro-Putin United Russia party, which claimed to win a majority of seats, only received 30%-35% of the vote, according to Golos [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.]

Russia needs a body similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission “to review publicly not only the crimes of the Putin era but also crimes committed during the eight-year rule of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin,” Satter contends. “Only this can provide a basis for democracy.”

Sadly, no such accounting is likely in the short run, which is why the stage is now set for a struggle over Russia’s future in which neither side can be confident of success. What’s at stake is not just the country’s prosperity but its existence as a civilized society.

Putin’s “regal inauguration” offered a creepy, “distinctly Orwellian” scene, as his “motorcade traveled along dead-quiet, deserted streets from the White House to the Kremlin, while on nearby Moscow streets ordinary citizens were being beaten by police truncheons,” writes Vladimir Frolov.

“With their ridiculous repeated ‘castlings’ and lame explanations to cover up what may be a conspiracy to perpetuate one man’s rule, Putin and Medvedev are taking this country into George Orwell’s ‘1984,’ writes Frolov, president of the Moscow-based LEFF Group, a government-relations and PR company:

It is Orwellian for Putin to pledge in his inauguration address that Russia should be a democracy while heavily armed police are roughing up people for merely taking a walk with a white ribbon or drinking coffee in a cafe.

It is Orwellian to nominate as the country’s next prime minister the man who has just failed as president and rush his nomination through parliament, disregarding the due deliberation process that underpins the real separation of powers.

It is Orwellian chutzpah to send Medvedev as your stand-in to the Group of Eight summit at Camp David, saying you are too busy forming Medvedev’s government.

It is Orwellian to fire off a flurry of executive orders on your first day on the job by giving your own former government the task of wishing away the nation’s problems while shedding any personal political responsibility for failure.

“This new Orwellian reality brings back the Big Lie, a return to Soviet-style manipulative slogans to cover up the rulers’ desire to perpetuate their rule with phony professions of seeking the public good. This is genuine Orwellian terrain ….”


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Rights at stake in Vietnam’s balancing act

A man watches a video on the blog of Dr. Nguyen Xuan Dien showing villagers challenging police during forced land evictions in Van Giang.

Today marks Vietnam Human Rights Day but that’s little consolation for Vietnamese-American pro-democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan, currently imprisoned in the New Hanoi Hilton,

The Communist is preparing new legislation to stifle dissident bloggers, the latest initiative in what Human Rights Watch has called an intensified wave of repression over recent months.

On Capitol Hill, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission holds a hearing next week on the status of human rights in Vietnam, but some observers believe adept diplomatic positioning  helps the regime escape strict censure from Washington.

“Vietnam’s strategic collaboration with the US is more subtle, perhaps by design, so that it can be seen as acting independently while keeping options open with China,” writes Lien Hoang:

The balancing act represents differences that reach the highest echelons of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, between those members looking west versus those clutching to ties with their ideological comrades to the north.

“It’s better to have both the US and China to hold each other at bay, rather than one dominant,” says Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy. “Vietnam does not want its relationships with the US and China to be very bad, but it also does not want them to be very good.”

Already deemed an “enemy of the internet” by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam is preparing a new decree on online content in a bid to repress dissenting voices on the increasingly assertive blogosphere:

When riot police broke up a recent protest over a forced eviction, AFP reports, Vietnam’s bloggers were ready – hidden in nearby trees, they documented the entire incident and quickly posted videos and photos online.

Their shaky images spread like wildfire on Facebook, in a sign of growing online defiance in Vietnam, in the face of efforts by authorities to rein in the country’s internet community.

“They follow me, they keep track of what I am writing; they keep track of all dissident bloggers. Anything they can do to harass us, they do,” said blogger Nguyen Thi Dung, one of several bloggers who publicised the 24 April Hung Yen unrest on a variety of websites.

“They have many people browsing the net, reporting things they don’t like, getting them taken down. It is a perfect copy of what the Chinese are doing on the internet,” she said, asking that her name be changed for her safety.

The authorities appear especially nervous about bloggers forming links with rural protest movements, much as China’s dissident legal advocates connected with popular grievances and Egyptian cyber activists linked up with the labor movement.

So the new decree is “an attempt to keep up with the times,” says Thayer:

In the past, journalists set up blogs to spread information not published in the mainstream press, but “the recent phenomenon of bloggers going to the sites of land protests to cover it virtually live is new.”
Hanoi-based Nguyen Xuan Dien’s live-blogging of the Hung Yen eviction (above) – with photos and video of thousands of riot police evicting farmers and beating two journalists covering the protest – quickly went viral, giving the unrest wide coverage despite being virtually ignored in the state media.

“[The decree will] tighten the screw on internal dissidents and severely restrict their activities by making them, as well as commercial service providers, responsible for material broadcast or stored on the internet,” he said.

Vietnam has enjoyed an international profile as a modernizing Asian Tiger, but liberalization has been strictly limited to the market, while the Market-Leninist regime continues to crack down on political dissent, most notably on Bloc 8406, a pro-democracy group styled after Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.

The regime is also struggling with an upsurge in labor militancy, and the authorities were recently forced to raise wages and amend the law governing strikes.

Vietnam: Continuing Abuse of Human Rights and Religious Freedom

Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM, 340 Cannon Building, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the status of human rights in Vietnam.

At a time when security and economic interests are driving the United States and Vietnam to strengthen relations in many areas, Vietnam continues to abuse the human rights and religious freedom of its own citizens.  The Vietnamese government has increasingly used vague national security laws to target peaceful pro-democracy and religious activists as well as human rights lawyers and citizen journalists who dare to expose the government’s violations of basic freedoms. Just last month, an American citizen, Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan – a pro-democracy activist – was arrested upon arrival in Vietnam and accused of terrorism.  In addition, while the Vietnamese Constitution provides for freedom of religion, activities of religious organizations are strictly regulated and disputes have been growing in recent years over the seizure of church and temple land by local governments.

This hearing will explore the challenges faced by democracy activists and religious organizations in Vietnam.

The following witnesses will testify:

Panel 1:  Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

Panel 2:   Dr. Robert George, Commissioner, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Panel 3:  Vo Van Ai, Founder and President of Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam; Mai Huong Ngo, wife of imprisoned Vietnamese-American Dr. Nguyen Quoc Quan; Phu Do Nguyen, Vice President, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network (SBTN).

Contact the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at 202-225-3599 or

Quê Me: Action for Democracy in Vietnam is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

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‘Bad emperor’ problem puts China model under scrutiny

Have recent events taken the gloss off the China model?

With up to 1,000 Filipino demonstrators expected to march today on China’s consulate in Manila to protest Beijing’s aggression in a maritime territorial dispute, the regime’s much-vaunted soft power is also looking fragile.

But the spat may rebound to the ruling elite’s advantage.

“For China’s ruling Communist Party, which is heading toward an end-of-year leadership succession, the dispute with Manila can divert attention from recent energy-sapping scandals over sacked Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and blind dissident Chen Guangcheng (right),” according to one account.

The appeal of China’s “vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-guided capitalism” was always questionable…..

But now, with the recent political upheavals, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy in which deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.

“Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. “The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off.”

The ruling Communist party is confronting a modern version of an ancient challenge, says Francis Fukuyama (left), a senior fellow at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, namely the “bad emperor” problem:

China never developed rule of law; an independent legal institution that would limit the discretion of the government. What the Chinese substituted for formal checks on power was a bureaucracy bound by rules and customs that made its behaviour reasonably predictable, and a Confucian moral system that educated leaders to look to public interests rather than their own aggrandisement. This system is, in essence, the same one that operates today, with the Communist party taking the role of emperor. … while unchecked power in the hands of a benevolent and wise ruler has many advantages, how do you guarantee a supply of good emperors?

“But it is the scandal over Bo Xilai, until recently a member of the party’s elite Politburo, that has most humbled those who previously praised the well-oiled nature of China’s political system and its appearance of unity,” the New York Times reports:

The fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal is demonstrating that the ruling Communist party is neither as competent nor as disciplined as many analysts believed. The regime is confronting a challenge that is especially delicate and potentially fraught for authoritarian regimes – managing a transfer of power:

With the dissolution of power, a multitude of factions and alliances are emerging under one-party rule, with no one voice able to impose order. ….“China needs a system in place more than ever,” said Wang Kang, a liberal writer from Chongqing. “Only a system can guarantee stability.”

The apparent institutionalization of Chinese authoritarianism “is largely a mirage,” writes Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:

The CPC has not solved the bad emperor problem, nor will it until it develops something like a genuine rule of law with all of the transparency and formal institutionalization that entails….informal rules observed by a small clique of insiders cannot really substitute for a formal rule of law. As we can see today, modern liberal democracies constrained by law and elections often produce mediocre or weak leaders. Sometimes democracies elect monsters, such as Adolf Hitler. But at least the formal procedures constraining power through law and elections put big roadblocks in the path of a really bad emperor.

Another significant burden on the China model is the “truncheon budget”, the cost of a rapidly growing security apparatus, a response to surging social unrest which is yet another “stress point”:

Its heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of social stability have been called into question by, among other things, more than 30 self-immolations by disaffected Tibetans and a diplomatic crisis between China and the United States precipitated by the plight of a persecuted dissident, Chen Guangcheng. A well-documented uprising last winter against corrupt officials in the southern village of Wukan ignited a debate about how protests should be addressed: by the sword of the security forces, or through mediation by senior officials.

Officials rely heavily on domestic security forces to quell what they call “mass incidents,” which one sociologist, Sun Liping, estimated at 180,000 in 2010. In March, the government announced that it planned to spend $111 billion on domestic security this year, a 12 percent increase over 2011, and $5 billion more than this year’s military budget.

The case of Chen Guangcheng exposed the weakness of the security hardliners’ “stability maintenance” or weiwen tactics and the blind barefoot lawyer believes the party must reform – sooner or later.

“From the few times I’ve engaged with them,” Chen said, “I know they have the intention of reforming, of slowly initiating the rule of law. But I don’t know how soon.”

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‘Pakistani Spring’ threatened by un-civil society?

There are promising signs that democracy is “budding in what may prove to be a Pakistani Spring,” says a leading analyst. But a former envoy to the U.S. believes the democratic revival following the 2008 elections has been marred by “political infighting and judicial activism on every issue except extremism and terrorism.”

“Anti-Western sentiment and a sense of collective victimhood were cultivated as a substitute for serious debate on social or economic policy,” Husain Haqqani writes in the New York Times. “A whole generation of Pakistanis has grown up with textbooks that conflate Pakistani nationalism with Islamist exclusivism,” the result of an extremist mind-set cultivated under the military dictatorships of Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq and Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

But elements of Pakistani’s un-civil society, notably the populist lawyers’ movement and media, also bear considerable responsibility for degrading democracy, says the country’s former ambassador to the Washington:

Pakistan’s raucous media, whose hard-won freedom is crucial for the success of democracy, has done little to help generate support for eliminating extremism and fighting terrorism. The Supreme Court, conservative opposition parties and the news media insist that confronting alleged incompetence and corruption in the current government is more important than turning Pakistan away from Islamist radicalism.

Haqqani’s comments coincide with the news that financial pressures are forcing Islamabad to reopen the border supply routes for US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“Pressure is coming, not only from Britain [given premier Gilani's visit to London this week] but from other key international players in Afghanistan for reopening the route,” political analyst Hasan Askari told AFP:

Islamabad has no choice but to reopen the border when US back-payments for fighting militants in the northwest, as part of the Coalition Support Fund, are needed to help boost state coffers ahead of the next budget. Some officials are concerned by reported moves by a US House of Representatives panel to deny $800 million in aid to train and equip the Pakistani army in counter-insurgency.

The country’s historically fragile democracy may be in the throngs of “a Pakistani Spring,” says Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“Amid widespread disenchantment with corruption and government mismanagement, the young and the middle class are restless,” writes Nasr, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution:

Many have flocked to anti-establishment politician Imran Khan, a former cricket hero, and his Movement for Justice. Khan isn’t friendly to the U.S.; he promises to stand up to America. But in other ways his campaign has enhanced the political debate. He regularly addresses the need to earnestly battle corruption and to reform the woefully inadequate tax system.

The rising star of Pakistani politics, Khan’s Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaf party, is leading its rivals at national and provincial levels, according to a poll from the International Republican Institute. The survey, conducted between February 9 to March 8 this year, shows the PTI at 31%, marginally ahead of the Pakistan Muslim League with 27% votes, with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party trailing on 16%.

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Who really speaks for China? Chen Guangcheng, Yu Jie, …

When dissident lawyer Chen Guang­cheng escaped ­extra-legal house arrest to make his way to the U.S. Embassy, he became “an instant hero” on the Chinese Internet, writes Perry Link, co-editor of The Tiananmen Papers:

How had he escaped? How could a single blind man tear such a hole in the government’s pervasive blanket of weiwen, or stability maintenance? Many called it a “miracle”; stories of “China’s blind spiderman” went viral. Eventually someone who had helped Chen tweeted an account. Chen had done merely this: “In nineteen hours climbed eight walls, jumped a dozen or so irrigation ridges, fell down a few hundred times, injured a foot, and finally crossed a stream that got him out of the village.”

“The Internet is the first medium in the history of Communist rule in China that the government has not been able to fully control,” notes Link, a celebrated China scholar at the University of California, Riverside:

The authorities hire hundreds of thousands of police and spend billions of yuan annually monitoring the Web and blocking unwanted messages. Yet for hundreds of millions of Chinese, the Internet continues to grow as a source of uncensored news and platform for popular expression. Regarding Chen, Internet opinion has been overwhelmingly positive.

So it is all the more regrettable that experts on U.S.-China relations insist on using “China” and “the Chinese” to refer “exclusively to elite circles within the Beijing government,” Link writes on the Washington Post:

For these experts, “the Chinese” view of anything — currency, technology transfer, cyberwar, Tibet, Taiwan, Syria — is inevitably the government’s view, no matter how far it departs from the views of other Chinese. They warn that such adherence is a matter of respecting the “sensitivities” of “the other side” and that if Washington supports human rights or democracy it will be “seen in China” as American sabotage.

But seen this way by whom in China?

“In the days since Chen left U.S. protection to go to a Beijing hospital, Chinese opinion online has weighed heavily on the side of saying the Americans did not help Chen enough,” Link observes.

Considering the cases of Fang Lizhi and Chen Guangcheng in parallel reveals how “remarkably different the political landscape is for dissidents and activists” in today’s China compared to 1989, writes Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China:

The 1989 demonstrations began with calls to end corruption. They later expanded to an appeal for democratic reforms, something that had not been heard since 1978, when the human rights activist Wei Jingsheng declared that democracy was the “fifth modernization.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

After Tiananmen, the only options for pro-democracy dissidents were exile or prison, Hom writes on Foreign Affairs:

During most of the 1990s, China used imprisoned dissidents as bargaining chips: it parlayed permission to leave China for independent trade union leader Han Dongfang* (1993) and political dissident Liu Qing (1992) to keep U.S. most-favored-nation status; it used the 1998 release of student leader Wang Dan to pressure the United States to withdraw its sponsorship of a UN resolution condemning China’s human rights policies.

Today’s China is a leading global power, a member of the World Trade Organization, Hom notes, a significant creditor of Western governments, including the United States. Beijing has ratified all the key international human rights treaties, with the exception of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (signed in 1998, but not yet ratified).

And yet.

At the same time, the nature, scope, and impact of activism in China have changed, in large part due to the Internet. By March of 2012, the number of netizens in China was over 500 million (up from 16.9 million in 2000)………….As popular discontent and citizen activism have spread online, they have also spread in scope to include demands not only for political reforms but also for official accountability on environmental crises, rampant corruption, tainted consumer products, massive theft of community land, dangerous workplaces, and increasing social and economic equalities. 

“The increasing number of mass protests, independent lawyers, and online citizen activists urgently demonstrates that the only way forward for China’s future is one shaped through respect for the rights of the citizens,” Hom concludes.

“The question now is: Are the authorities reading the writing on the wall, or are they too blinded by their own self-interest for party survival at all costs?”


While Chen’s plight has attracted the global media spotlight, the case of a less celebrated dissident also merits attention, writes Ying Ma, a policy advisor at the Heartland Institute.

Like Chen, Yu Jie (left) occupied an incongruous political terrain “in that space between political dissent and silent submission, between open opposition to the regime and fearful acceptance of its edicts,” she writes.

About fifteen years ago, Yu began writing about “the anger, sadness, resignation, and desperation of this incongruity,” Ying observes.

“He wrote about the shallowness of a society that cares more about money and status than honesty and justice, the desperation of a people who cannot, and are not allowed to, think for themselves, and the tragedy of a country that mistakes wealth for glory, power for righteousness,” notes Ying, author of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, completed as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution:

Across China, readers recognized in Yu’s essays the China they knew: a creature that was not, and could not, be whole. At a time when it was common for the wealthy to build villas for their mistresses and hire prostitutes, Yu wrote about the innocence of a girl who would always shed a tear for the indigent who beg for money by playing the harmonica at subway entrances. At a time when the youth of China appeared obsessed with consumerism, Yu wrote about the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and the cravenness of those who do not. …. At a time when material goods were ever more abundant in China, Yu lamented that his fellow citizens’ souls were becoming ever more impoverished, and that the intangibles, such as liberty, truth, and ideals, were becoming ever less interesting.

“Yu got into trouble because he did not stop there,” she writes:

Almost ten years ago, his writing and activities began to veer from social critique to outright democracy promotion. From 2005 to 2007, he served as the vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a non-governmental association of Chinese writers, editors, translators, and publishers and a grantee of America’s National Endowment for Democracy.


Human Rights in China and the Wei Jingsheng Foundation are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

* Han Dongfang is vice-chair of the World Movement for Democracy.

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