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During his visit to the United States last week for the United Nations Millennium Summit, Chinese President Jiang Zemin met with media leaders and reportedly asked them to help soften his country’s image. There is an easy way to do that. The Chinese government can stop harassing, arresting and imprisoning individuals who dare to disagree with its policies.

A report released last week by Human Rights Watch details Beijing’s crackdown on individuals who dare to think for themselves. The China Democracy Party, formed two years ago by leading dissidents who wanted to provide a legal opposition to Communist Party rule, has been a favorite target. Even though the CDP was formed in an attempt to claim rights guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and U.N. treaties, the party has been banned. At least 34 of its leading members have been arrested; several have been given prison terms of 10 years or longer. As HRW concludes, “promoting political reforms remains a hazardous occupation.”

Members of religious groups are another target. Last month, 130 members of an underground Protestant church were detained after holding an “illegal gathering.” In other words, these members of an “evil cult” had met to pray without government approval.

The Chinese government’s crackdown against the Falun Gong sect has also been rightly condemned. It, too, has been labeled an illegal sect; the group claims that 50 of its members have died in police custody since it was banned last year. Three members died in suspicious circumstances last week. The group also alleges that China has sentenced 450 members to prison, sent 600 to mental hospitals, put 10,000 in labor camps and locked up another 20,000 in detention centers.

Freedom of speech and assembly are basic human rights. China claims they are protected by the country’s own laws. Perhaps, but the government seems unwilling to turn those rights into realities. Doing so is the best way to clean up China’s international image.

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