China may trade prisoners for arms

Asia Times runs a story today on the impact that the EU’s lift of arms embargo might have on China’s political prisoners. Li Jing wrote, “the news currently making the rounds in in Beijing’s political circles is that China will soon release some political prisoners and commute the sentences of others, in an effort to win points with the EU for the eventual lifting of the arms embargo.”


HONG KONG – A senior official from the European Union recently indicated that the 25-nation bloc was seriously considering lifting the embargo on arms sales to China, which was banned from buying advanced weaponry from the EU since the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen pro- movement in June 1989. That ban was upheld on November 17 by the European Parliament in Brussels, and China’s human-rights record was cited; the EU said it would also put legal teeth into its arms-sales code of conduct. Coincidental or not, the news currently making the rounds in in Beijing’s political circles is that China will soon release some political prisoners and commute the sentences of others, in an effort to win points with the EU for the eventual lifting of the arms embargo.

A leading dissident and pro-democracy campaigner, Liu Jingsheng, was released from prison over the weekend. He has been released from prison after more than a decade behind bars.

The United States exerted overwhelming pressure to maintain the ban until Beijing improves its human-rights record; France and Germany have been especially keen to see the embargo lifted, opening the way to arms sales to China. Beijing will hold discussions with the EU in The Hague about the arms ban and human rights on December 8.

China experts say that Beijing’s expected moves are indeed intended to trade some political dissidents for the lifting of the EU embargo, since the Middle Kingdom is eager to beef up its military strength to prepare for possible military conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have disclosed that more than 200 dissidents from the Tiananmen pro-democracy demonstrations, part of the democratic Student Movement in June 1989, when the troops and tanks were deployed, are still imprisoned.

Bernard Bot, foreign minister of the Netherlands and currently chairman of the EU, hinted on November 22 that the bloc might be ready to remove the ban on arms sales and was prepared to hold further talks with Beijing during the EU-China summit on December 8. He cautioned, however, that some obstacles remained to a smooth and swift removal of the arms-sales ban.

According to Gu Junli, an expert with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), it appears unlikely that the EU will reach a unanimous decision to lift the ban before next March. Gu suggests that EU member nations could have forged a compromise proposal and possibly laid out a new code of conduct on arms sales. That would mean the general ban could be lifted but member states would still have to adhere to a legal code of conduct concerning arms sales and banning the sale of arms if they are likely to be used to repress the buyer’s population or ethnic minorities or to violate human rights. The current code is considered voluntary.

The biggest hindrance to ending the arms sale is China’s human-rights record, a sore point in China’s relationships with major Western powers and the EU. The bloc imposed the embargo after Beijing quelled the 1989 pro-democracy movement in with the massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of peaceful, unarmed demonstrators.

As the virtual backdrop of the EU chairman’s hints, news about China’s expected efforts to refurbish its human-rights records have emerged in Beijing; insiders said China was expected soon to release some political dissidents in addition to commuting sentences. The EU statement and the unofficial reports in China occurred at about the same time.

In fact, China’s talks with the EU on the embargo removal started early this year, and Beijing had then started to take steps to satisfy the EU over its human-rights record. On April 23, one of China’s most prominent labor-movement leaders, Chen Gang, was set free, three years earlier than scheduled. Chen originally had been sentenced to life imprisonment for organizing a massive strike in 1989; the sentence was later reduced to 18 years, and he was freed three years early.

Chen will soon be joined by Wu Shishen, a former editor with the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Xinhua News Agency, who has been serving a life sentence, already having spent 12 years behind bars. Wu was convicted of leaking former president Jiang Zemin’s full report for the 14th National Party Congress to a Hong Kong journalist well before the congress opened. An informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asia Times Online that Wu is expected to regain his freedom in mid-2005, also part of Beijing’s plan of trading some dissidents and political prisoners for an end to the EU weapons ban.

Liu Jingsheng, 50, was released over the weekend, two and a half years ahead of schedule. One of founding fathers of China’s democratic movement, Liu joined Beijing’s early democratic campaigns in the late 1970s along with other major democrats such as Wei Jingsheng. After the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Liu was sentenced to 15 years for establishing a democratic party and an independent labor union free from the Communist Party’s domination. Independent trade unions are banned in China.

Political observers regard the releases of a few political prisoners by Beijing, and reports of more to come, as efforts to build up goodwill with the EU. They are regarded as concessions from China’s leadership, headed by party chief and President Hu Jintao, who apparently is willing to release some political prisoners in an effort to refurbish Beijing’s image in the international arena and win support from major Western powers in the seesaw game of arms-ban bargaining.

Human-rights organizations are quick to remind everyone that more than 200 dissidents arrested at the time of the Tiananmen Massacre are still behind bars.

According to some political observers who take a panoramic, strategic view of what may be the arms-ban bargain – weapons systems for dissidents – Beijing is eager to speed up its weaponry upgrade and prepare for a possible conflict in order to reclaim Taiwan, its so-called renegade province. Since independence-minded Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian won re-election in March, the mainstream public sentiment on the island might be inclined to assert independence, or virtual independence, during his second term, some analysts say. So far, Chen has promoted a timetable, considered provocative by China, whereby a new independence-leaning constitution is scheduled to be formalized in 2006 and then take effect in 2008. That is why the some mainland leaders believe China must strengthen its military for deterrence in a short time. Many military analysts anticipate the balance between the armed forces flanking the Taiwan Strait to be tipped in Beijing’s favor by around 2006, but that does not promise an overwhelming victory for the mainland.

China’s national defense upgrade sustained an unexpected setback in 1989 when the Tiananmen Massacre led to the EU arms embargo. The decade of the 1980s before the embargo was a heyday for weapons transactions between the Occident and China, which tried catching up with the well-equipped troops of Western countries through the introduction of sophisticated weapons, such as military electronics, the Crotale (“Rattlesnake”) low-altitude surface-to-air defense missile system developed by the France-based Thomson-CSF, French-made multi-purpose Dauphin helicopters, torpedoes and sonar systems manufactured by Italy, and anti-aircraft flak guns by Sweden, among other high-technology weapons.

As a result of the arms ban, however, the import of Goalkeeper weapons systems from the Netherlands, Type 23 frigates from the United Kingdom, light-class aircraft carriers from Spain, and even China’s Peace Pearl F-8-2 jet-fighter upgrade programs in cooperation with the US were either aborted or postponed.

In this situation, China turned to Russia and placed the first order for Su-27 fighters in the early 1990s. Yet by the time the mainland equipped its People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) with the Su-27s that were designed to counter the US F-15 fighters, Taiwan had already acquired US F-16 fighters, upgraded on the basis of the F-15.

The Su-27 fighters in the 1990s could only lock on to two targets simultaneously on their radar screens and they adopted a hybrid electronic/hydraulic flight-control system. By comparison, the US F-16 fighters had fitted three multi-functional displays on the cockpit in the 1980s, and even Taiwan’s Indigenous Defense Fighter (IDF) had two.

Only after China had spent lavishly on purchasing the license for its own Su-27 production in the late 1990s did Russia help to upgrade the F-8-2 fighters designed by China on its own. At the Air Show China 2004 held in Zhuhai, Russia was still touting its improved variants of the Su-27, from which observers concluded that the weaponry Russia sold to China was not much more advanced than China’s home-made arms.

Therefore, the removal of the EU arms embargo will open the door to more weapons sellers in China. At this time, the country is not yet capable of producing some crucial parts for its advanced weapons, so they must be imported. In the research-and-development phase, the crucial parts can be purchased through covert channels, but analysts say that the imitations made by China itself simply are not up to par when it comes to mass production.

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