By Jeff Mason
DUJIANGYAN, China, Aug 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President
Joe Biden prodded China to expand citizens' rights on Sunday,
but the tight security accompanying his visit to the nation's
southwest showed the ruling Communist Party's determination to
stamp out dissent.
Biden used a speech at a university in Sichuan province to
make a broad case for expanded human rights in China, where the
ruling party pursued a crackdown on any form of opposition in
the first half of 2012, fearing uprisings in Arab countries
against autocratic rulers could inspire unrest at home.
"I recognize that many of you in this auditorium see our
advocacy of human rights as, at best, an intrusion and, at
worst, an assault on your sovereignty," Biden said, in a nod to
Chinese nationalist sentiment that can become riled by criticism
from Western leaders.
"I know that some in China believe that greater freedom
could threaten economic progress by undermining social
stability," Biden said in Chengdu, the provincial capital of
"I believe history has shown the opposite to be true: that
in the long run, greater openness is a source of stability and a
sign of strength."
But petitioners and would-be protesters in Chengdu, whom
officials feared could try to approach Biden, were detained or
warned to stay inside their homes, said Huang Qi, a veteran
dissident in Chengdu who was released from jail in June after
serving a three-year prison term for his activism.
Since his release, Huang has resumed organising a group
called "Tianwang" (http://64tianwang.com) which campaigns to
free detained dissidents, petitioners and rights advocates.
"I'm relatively well-known by the international community,
so local authorities have not made moves against me. But our
Tianwang volunteers and many petitioners have been detained by
the authorities," Huang said in a telephone interview.
Huang said he knew about 10 petitioners and advocates
associated with Tianwang who were detained before Biden's visit.
The U.S. vice president also visited a school close to
Dujiangyan, a small city near Chengdu badly damaged in the May
12, 2008, earthquake that devastated parts of Sichuan.
At a high school there, Biden and Chinese Vice President Xi
Jinping met a class of students studying English and took
questions and as they sat casually dressed without ties or
"I apologize that I don't speak Chinese," Biden told the
students, who were quick to reassure him not to worry.
With his counterpart sitting beside him, Biden did not
mention human rights, but he did refer to "growing pains" in the
According to a translator, Xi told the students the
earthquake had made them more aware than people who do not
The quake left 87,000 people dead or missing, most likely
dead, including thousands of children who were killed when
school buildings collapsed on them.
Since the quake, aggrieved parents who lost children, and
their supporters, have claimed that many of the schools were
poorly built, because of corruption and lax standards.
Sichuan officials said in 2009 the number of school children
killed or missing from the earthquake 5,335, but critics say
more died and the government failed to punish officials
responsible for shoddy buildings disproportionately vulnerable
to the quake.
Some campaigners over the issue, including Huang, have been
jailed. And the prominent artist-activist Ai Weiwei, whose
detention early this year sparked an international uproar, also
organised a campaign to document the children who died.
But Biden was kept well away from such bitter memories, said
Huang. The Qingchengshan High School he visited did not record
any deaths during the 2008 earthquake.
"Dujiangyan is also a sensitive area. There are petitioners
complaining about losing children on May 12 or other
complaints," said Huang. "But the authorities always have their
own well-honed ways of making sure that they're in control.
Biden won't see any of that."
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley in Beijing, editing by