As French President Jacques Chirac began a three-day state visit to China today, Reporters Without Borders asked him if he intended to raise the issue of free expression in a country where the government, through its propaganda and public security departments, has stepped up its control of journalists, the Internet and foreign media even further in recent months.
"It would be shocking if you said nothing about freedom of expression on this, the last visit to China of this presidential term," the press freedom organisation said. "To judge from France’s repeated silence about the large-scale human rights violations there, your China policy could be summed up as courteous relations with its communist leaders, scientific cooperation and the signing of contracts. But nothing concrete about human rights."
Chirac was due to begin his visit with meetings today with President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and the head of the People’s Assembly, and with a speech to students at Beijing University (Beida).
"This visit will probably not result in the signing of any major business contracts so why not talk openly and frankly about human rights?" Reporters Without Borders asked. "This time the foreign ministry cannot claim that French jobs are at stake. What’s more, Hu Jintao is no liberal - the recent increase in ideological control and crackdown on human rights defenders were dramatic evidence of that."
The organisation continued: "Visits by US or European officials are generally preceded by the release of some political prisoners, but there has been nothing for France this time. On the contrary, cyber-dissidents, lawyers and human rights activists have been given prison sentences in recent weeks. Does France’s ability to make itself heard on human rights no longer apply to China?"
Reporters Without Borders added: "You are going to address students at Beijing’s prestigious university, where the main pro-democracy movements were born. Even if many of the students have no clear idea of what happened in June 1989, because of the strict censorship surrounding the events in Tiananmen Square, it would be regrettable if you limited yourself to vague generalities when talking about freedoms with them."
At least 32 journalists and 52 cyber-dissidents and Internet users are currently imprisoned in China.