Chinas French Connection (Editorial)

China's Communist leaders have finally found a Western human rights model they like: France's new anti-cult law making "mental manipulation" a crime. Hong Kong's Tung Chee-hwa indicated he is studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong movement because it has "more or less the characteristics of an evil cult"; he pledged to "keep a close eye on their every move." Mainland authorities have already cracked down on the group and other spiritual and religious practitioners who resist government thought control.

Chinese officials now triumphantly canvass American academics, touting the French law as partial vindication for China's much-criticized human rights posture. They delight in noting that France's National Assembly passed the measure unanimously and with widespread popular support.

Many of France's religious leaders joined representatives of the international human rights community in opposing the new law. It provides up to three years' imprisonment for acts of "serious and repeated pressure, or the use of techniques to alter the mind of a person, leading him or her to commit a harmful act . . . [or] . . . to act in a way prejudicial to his interests." Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim representatives objected that it could result in "overzealousness and judicial excess" and might threaten established religions as well. The Clinton and Bush state departments echoed those sentiments, and the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously stated its "grave concerns." Major religious groups placed a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune urging French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to withdraw the legislation and warned that France would be "compared to China" for its disregard of human rights concerns.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights condemned the French statute and predicted that it would "eliminate all liberty of association in France." If so, Paris indeed would be emulating Beijing's human rights practices. But all appeals for government reconsideration fell on deaf ears. Deputy Catherine Picard, a leader of the legislative effort, cited a mass cult suicide in the 1990s and said: "We need to give judges repressive tools. The law is a response to the evolution of society and the growing importance that sects have in it." Chinese officials cracking down on Falun Gong, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims could not have put it better. President Jacques Chirac signed the bill into law.

The French connection in China's anti-human rights campaign is not new; parallel efforts by the two governments last month succeeded in ejecting the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Commission, in favor of such unsavory regimes as Sudan and Sierra Leone.

With French irony, Paris has openly criticized American enforcement of the death penalty, noting that all of Europe has abolished it. But the world's leading executioner -- in an Olympic gold-medal class of its own -- is China, and its legal system affords none of the protections guaranteed by American, French or other Western laws. Moreover, the grotesque harvesting and sale of human organs from freshly killed Chinese prisoners heightens suspicions regarding the escalating number of death sentences in China for even nonviolent offenses. And since Beijing describes all kinds of behavior as state security threats punishable by death, perpetrators of "mental manipulation" may soon face overt execution rather than dying in Chinese prisons by "accident" or "suicide" (the fate of hundreds of Falun Gong members so far).

One of the purposes of economic and diplomatic engagement was to integrate China into the international system, encourage its acceptance of humanitarian norms and steadily elevate Chinese human rights standards. The interrelationships between China and the West exist all right, but in the case of thought crimes at least, it seems French standards are being lowered to match and legitimate China's. For the cause of human rights in both countries, c'est tres tragique, but as Jiang Zemin would say, Vive la France!

The writer teaches a graduate seminar on China-Taiwan issues in the Asian Studies Program at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service.