BEIJING -- At least 40 political dissidents were secretly arrested in China last year and their underground, pro-democracy organizations were smashed, according to an Asia Watch report released today.
Noting the stark contrast between China's renewed drive toward economic openness and its continued political repression, the U.S.-based human rights organization said that China is signaling "unequivocally that political pluralism and democracy have no role to play" in its future.
Chinese officials "have no intention whatever of allowing China, the world's last surviving Communist giant, to go the same way as the former Soviet Union and East European states -- whether along the road of so-called 'peaceful evolution' or that of popular insurrection," the group's report said.
Since last November, China has released from jail seven prominent political or religious dissidents, including five imprisoned in connection with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
But Asia Watch termed these moves "token concessions" to international opinion that amount to no more than a callous "smile offensive." It said the releases do not begin to dent China's "huge backlog of political prisoner cases," including several thousand still jailed as a result of the Tiananmen protests.
The 40 or more dissidents secretly arrested in 1992 are still being held, the group's report said. Their families often have been denied information about their whereabouts
"The recent arrests . . . constitute a blatant violation by the authorities in Beijing of the internationally recognized rights to freedom of speech and association," Asia Watch said. "None of the detainees stands accused of advocating or engaging in violent activity of any kind.
"They are behind bars purely for having the audacity to challenge, in an entirely peaceful manner, the [Communist] Party's time-honored monopolies on political power and truth," the human-rights group said.
China had no immediate reaction to the Asia Watch report. But Monday in Geneva, its representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reiterated China's official stance that it has been successful at providing "the most fundamental human right" by largely solving the problems of feeding, clothing and housing its huge population.
"The Chinese people of all nationalities have never so extensively and fully enjoyed their human rights as they do now," Ambassador Jin Yongjian told the U.N. agency, according to China's official news agency.
But Mr. Jin also warned: "No organization nor individual has the privilege of being above the constitution and law."
Asia Watch said that, in practice, authorities continue to label as "counter-revolutionary" and therefore illegal any group that represents organized political opposition to the party, however peaceful or moderate.
This was the case with five small, pro-democracy organizations broken up here last year, Asia Watch said.
The groups -- including the Liberal Democratic Party of China and the Free Labor Union of China -- cautiously emerged last year in the wake of Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping's new campaign to step up the pace of China's economic reforms.
The groups' activities mainly were limited to contacting foreign reporters here, distributing statements to government offices or holding meetings. Nonetheless, their emergence led to arrests in Beijing, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Anhui and Gansu provinces and the groups were smashed or dispersed, Asia Watch said.
Asia Watch collects its information from a variety of sources inside China. Its reports meticulously list the names and ages of victims. The latest Asia Watch report provides the first comprehensive account of the damage done to China's pro-democracy movement by the return here last summer from the United States of exiled activist Shen Tong.
Mr. Shen, a leader of the Tiananmen protests, escaped to the United States. He came back to contact activists and form China's first open and legal pro-democracy group but was detained by authorities and 53 days later, sent back to the United States.
In the wake of Mr. Shen's detention, at least five activists have been arrested, about a dozen have been forced to flee China and some others are still on the run within China, Asia Watch said.
In a separate report issued last week, another human rights group, Amnesty International, said that China last year also arrested four members of a Uygur ethnic group in its northwestern Xinjiang region. China repeatedly has crushed independence movements there among Uygurs and other Central Asian ethnic minorities.