BEIJING — What do mailing newspaper clippings to your husband, defending displaced tenants and writing a doctoral thesis using 50-year-old library records have in common?
They're all apparently enough to get you thrown in jail in China for "revealing state secrets."
In a twist worthy of George Orwell's "1984," many of the laws and regulations that make up the state-secret regime here are themselves classified, making it difficult for individuals to know how and when they're in violation.
"They say they don't interfere with what you write on the Internet, but they can call whatever they want a state secret," said Gao Qinsheng, 61, whose son, Shi Tao, has been imprisoned since 2004 on charges of "illegally supplying state secrets abroad."
"It's a conspiracy. They can use these at will to punish people," she added.
In a report released today, New York-based Human Rights in China calls on Beijing to create a clear definition of what constitutes a state secret. This, the civic group believes, will help narrow laws that in effect allow Beijing to prosecute anyone it decides is a troublemaker.
The group has called on Beijing to heed China's Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and other basic rights. China, it said, should create an independent review mechanism for secrecy cases, end political interference in the court system and halt the deep-seated culture of secrecy.
"China wants to be a respected member of the international community; that's what the Olympics is about," said Sharon Hom, the group's executive director. "To get international respect, it knows it must do a better job respecting human rights at home and abroad."
Based on its track record, there's very little chance that China is going to enact sweeping democratic reform quickly. But the country faces mounting pressure domestically from a nascent open-government movement and from increasingly frustrated legal and academic communities.
China's secrecy laws grew out of regulations dating to 1951, under Chairman Mao Tse-tung. They since have become an important last line of defense for the post-Mao Communist Party to maintain control in a rapidly evolving nation. Furthermore, the laws allow the Communist leadership to retroactively change its definition of what is secret.
Those who have been snared in the web include Rebiya Kadeer, a successful entrepreneur and advocate of minority rights for the Muslim Uighur minority in western China. Kadeer was arrested in August 1999 on her way to meet a U.S. congressional staffer, shortly after she had sent newspaper clippings to her husband in the United States. This led to her being sentenced to eight years in prison for "illegally providing state secrets overseas."
Kadeer is now living in the U.S. after an international campaign led to her early release on health grounds.
Others have been imprisoned for faxing published information abroad. This is part of an oft-repeated pattern, activists say, where the government imprisons defendants on a technicality rather than for their perceived transgression: challenging state authority.
In October 2003, Zheng Enchong, a lawyer working to help people thrown out of their Shanghai homes by well-connected developers, was sentenced to three years in prison after faxing a newspaper article and account of a police crackdown to Human Rights in China. Released in 2006, he remains under close supervision.
And Tohti Tunyaz, an ethnic Uighur working on a University of Tokyo doctorate on Beijing's policies toward ethnic minorities, was arrested in 1998. He received an 11-year sentence for "illegally procuring state secrets," reportedly for obtaining 50-year-old records from a library. He remains at the Urumqi No. 3 Prison, slated for release in February 2009.
Balancing the need for national security against the protection of human rights is something governments around the world struggle with, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Defenders of China's secrecy regime say the system is needed, given the country's huge population and unique conditions. Furthermore, they add, the secrecy regime is changing in keeping with the nation's development.
"Some academics and overseas organizations don't follow the rules because they don't understand them and conclude they're used to persecute dissidents," said Lin Zhe, a professor of law and human rights at the Central Party School in Beijing. "The system is also becoming more tolerant. If academics said some things a few decades ago that they do now, they would be sentenced or shot."
Human rights experts counter, however, that the rules remain repressive and open to abuse. Overly broad laws cast a pall over academic research, policy debate and legal defense, they add.