Pushes Against Dissent Abroad

BEIJING (AP) - The Chinese president was arriving, and no one wanted trouble. So last month, just before Jiang Zemin's visit, Iceland's government took action.

Five dozen foreigners linked to the Falun Gong spiritual movement were detained. Icelandic agents showed up at American airports to keep Falun Gong members off Reykjavik-bound planes. Chinese diplomats, newspapers reported, even warned guesthouse proprietors that Falun Gong was a terrorist group.

Four days later, when Jiang visited Lithuania, things were similar. Tibetan protesters were kept at a distance — according to instructions from China, the Lithuanian government said. Those carrying Tibetan flags were dragged off. "I could not guarantee that Chinese security officers would not shoot them on the spot," Raimundas Kairys, the Lithuanian Interior Ministry's security chief, said in Vilnius.

China, which says it opposes interference in other nations' affairs, is, some assert, doing just that lately — ensuring the dissent that it stifles at home doesn't bubble up while Beijing's leaders are in the spotlight abroad.

"The Chinese have always been sensitive about how their people are treated abroad," says Steven Goldstein, a China expert at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "But it's also clear that the sensitivity has become much more open, much more confrontational. The pressure's increased."

For a generation, Western politicians and business leaders advocated engagement with Beijing rather than sanctions against its rights policies, saying capitalism would open China to democracy. To some extent, that has happened.

But now, it's working in reverse. China's newfound economic and diplomatic clout is allowing it to flex muscles overseas in ways it couldn't have 20 years ago.

Especially since joining the World Trade Organization last year, China is a nation no one wants to alienate. Its potential markets — and the sense that it will only grow more robust — cow many countries, particularly smaller ones, into treating it gingerly.

"Chinese leaders, they're not so accustomed to these newly emerging protests," says Jin Canrong, an international scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing whose views often mirror China's official line.

Beijing says its policies haven't changed. It's simple, according to Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao: When China asks other nations for help with troublemakers, they usually say yes.

"China appreciates the cooperation," Liu said last week. Asked if China enlists other countries to quash dissent, he said only, "China's leaders have to make some preparations for the security of their visits."

The pressure goes beyond state visits, though.

When the Dalai Lama travels, the Chinese government often objects vehemently, saying that in seeking autonomy for Tibet, he is promoting "splittism." It did just that Sunday, expressing "strong displeasure" with Slovenia for allowing a visit last week.

Same story with Taiwanese government officials who travel abroad; that, says Beijing, makes Taiwan look like a sovereign state, not a breakaway Chinese province, as Beijing claims.

In recent years, the Chinese government has pushed Australia to crack down on Falun Gong activity. In the United States, mayors of smaller cities who honored Falun Gong with proclamations received calls from Chinese diplomats condemning the "evil cult." Some scoffed; some, like Westland, Mich., rescinded the proclamation. Others said the diplomats mentioned the importance of Chinese-U.S. trade ties.

Today's uneasy geopolitics also support China's efforts. Since Sept. 11, the U.S.-led coalition has vowed to root out terrorists everywhere — a notion that Beijing, in the months since the attacks, has exploited by broadening the language it uses to define its enemies.

But such pressure can backfire by antagonizing public opinion in the host country.

In Lithuania, opposition politicians protested that their nation's dignity had been undermined by its police. In Iceland, 300 prominent citizens took out a full-page newspaper ad apologizing to Falun Gong for their government's "incomprehensible actions."

And although Iceland's government said these actions were taken independently, not because of any Chinese security requests, it did demand an explanation from Beijing's ambassador for the interference in Icelandic affairs — the exact sort of meddling that China would never tolerate.

"China is trying to maintain a double standard," Goldstein says. But "if I were Iceland, if I were Lithuania, and a relationship with China was very important to me, then I think I would listen very hard."