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A Beijing court has handed down long prison sentences to four Chinese men who organized political discussions and posted essays on the Internet. Xu Wei and Jin Haike were reportedly given ten-year terms, and Yang Zili and Zhang Honghai got eight years. The four men, twenty-six to thirty-two years’ old, were first jailed in March 2001, after they formed the New Youth Study Group. The group held small meetings on the campus of Beijing University to discuss political reform in China.

The harsh sentences came only days before the fourteenth anniversary of the massive crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators June 3rd and 4th, 1989, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China. Since that time, China has made much progress in opening up to the world. But it has ruthlessly suppressed political dissent, as the latest harsh sentences demonstrate. And a lack of democratic checks and balances enabled China’s government to cover up the SARS epidemic for months, allowing the disease to spread around the world.

Lorne Craner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, says China remains a major violator of human rights:

“You do see numerous, serious abuses, quickness to suppress human rights there. It is a country of particular concern.”

Chinese abuses include torture and extrajudicial killing; restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, association, and movement; and crackdowns on Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and unregistered Christian groups.

The U.S., said Assistant Secretary of State Craner, is “supporting those Chinese. . .who are trying to advance structural reforms”:

“We will not see change overnight, but over the long term, these processes offer, perhaps, the best hope for a democratic China.”

It is clear that the pressure for change in China will continue to grow, no matter how many people are jailed.