Nipped in the bud

The Suppression of the China Democracy Party

We must be on guard, from the beginning to the end, against infiltrating, subversive and splittist activities by international and domestic hostile forces. Any political behavior that is aimed at damaging the stability and unity of our country runs counter to the will and the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. No matter where these factors which damage social stability come from, we must firmly hold to the Four Basic Principles and have a clear-cut stand in increasingly opposing them and firmly nipping them in the bud. (Jiang Zemin, speech on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Third Plenum of the Eleventh Party Congress, December 18, 1998)


This report documents the Chinese government's reaction to the efforts of a small number of democracy activists in 1998 and 1999 to take the first steps toward establishing a legal opposition party. It illustrates how tightly the government continues to control and restrict freedom of expression and association, despite China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and public assurances by its leaders of their concern for human rights. It shows that, while China has undergone phenomenal economic and social transformation over the last two decades, there has been no significant change in the government's policy toward any organization which overtly challenges the Communist Party's control: suppression.

The China Democracy Party (CDP), a loosely linked group of political activists, operating nationwide, emerged in mid-1998. It was significant because it was the first time since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 that an attempt was made to obtain the formal legal registration of an opposition political party. Over the next eighteen months, however, it was systematically crushed. Known members of the CDP were summarily arrested and detained, and though most were held for relatively brief periods, at least thirty-four of them were sentenced to prison terms of up to thirteen years on charges of attempted subversion. At least four others fled into exile abroad. Others, who remain in China but are not in prison, live under close police surveillance and have ceased to be openly active.

The CDP called for multiparty democracy in China and respect for human rights. Chinese leaders saw it as a group that aimed to undermine the basic principles and the monopoly of power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). CDP members were veteran dissidents, many of them former political prisoners. They were skilled in modern communication techniques and strategic in their timing of statements and actions. They were determined to test the Chinese government's stated commitment to improved respect for human rights and willing to face the consequences of doing so.

Three of the group's founders, Wang Youcai, Wang Donghai and Lin Hui, seized the opportunity presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton's state visit to China in June 1998 to announce the formation of the CDP's first local preparatory committee in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. Then, taking advantage of the relatively relaxed political atmosphere at the time, CDP activists sought to register preparatory committees in other provinces. And as the government announced that China would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), they cited that treaty's provisions on freedom of association and expression as evidence of their right to organize.

At first, local authorities to whom CDP members applied to register their preparatory committees appear to have been uncertain how to react. But when the CDP announced that it planned to create a national structure, the central government, led by National People's Congress chairman Li Peng and President Jiang Zemin, denounced the fledgling party, and CDP leaders were arrested and imprisoned. The first wave of arrests took place in November and December 1998, but neither it nor a subsequent series of arrests in May 1999 deterred the remaining CDP members from continuing their efforts to build the party, issue public statements, or hold discussion groups. It was only in late 1999 that the CDP was effectively silenced.

CDP members stressed during their efforts to obtain legal recognition that they were seeking to do so in accordance with existing laws. In the absence of regulations specifically governing the registration of political parties, they sought to register with the relevant provincial branches of the Civil Affairs Ministry in view of its responsibility for the registration of "social groups." They also invoked the Chinese constitution and official regulations on social groups issued in October 1989 and pointed to China's stated commitment to the rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Finally, when all else had failed, they tried to go directly to the State Council, China's equivalent of an executive cabinet, to register. The end result, however, was that the embryonic party was declared an "illegal organization."

The main regulation used to try and sentence CDP leaders was Article 105 of the 1997 Penal Code, which penalizes "those involved in organizing, scheming or acting to subvert the political power of the state and overthrow the socialist system." Since the offense of "counterrevolution" was dropped from the 1997 Penal Code, Article 105 has become one of the charges used by the government to punish peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

Civil society has been growing increasingly rapidly in China since 1979: to date more than 200,000 social groups are officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. As of this writing, however, no organization has been allowed publicly to challenge the role of the Communist Party, and any open expression of opinions that deviate from the official party line remains hazardous.

In this report, Human Rights Watch documents the emergence and suppression of the CDP. The report is based on CDP documents, original court material, and interviews with members living in exile in the United States or resident in Hong Kong.


Human Rights Watch urges the government of the People's Republic of China to:

At the same time, Human Rights Watch calls upon the international community to:


China's economic reforms, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, brought about tremendous changes. The changes were not just economic; they included greater personal freedom for much of the population and unprecedented growth in publications and social organizations. Today, some 200,000 social organizations are officially registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The number of newspapers and magazines has increased dramatically over the last two decades. But the Chinese government's policy of zero tolerance for political opposition remains firmly in place, in part because of its fear of the consequences of liberalization. "When you open the windows," the president of the state-run China Human Rights Association told foreign correspondents in Beijing in 1999, "flies and mosquitoes come in.