BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police blocked a prominent human rights lawyer from attending a Beijing dinner hosted by German leader Angela Merkel, the lawyer said on Friday, the latest example of restrictions on unorthodox views in a sensitive year.
German diplomats from the embassy in Beijing had early on Thursday invited Mo Shaoping to a dinner with Merkel, who is in China on a three-day visit, to discuss the Chinese legal system and issues facing lawyers, Mo told Reuters by telephone.
The incident could focus renewed attention on human rights in China. Merkel told reporters on Thursday she had “a frank dialogue” with Chinese leaders on human rights.
But state security officers told Mo he was not allowed to meet Merkel on Thursday night, citing “orders from leaders above” but without providing any legal evidence, Mo said.
“They said: ‘The 18th Party Congress is coming up, we must maintain stability, we can’t have different voices present’,” Mo said, referring to congress of the ruling Communist Party that convenes late this year.
“I said: ‘What does this have to do with me? I’m just an ordinary lawyer’,” Mo said.
“On maintaining stability, with just one meeting, will that cause instability? And on different viewpoints, that is restricting the rights of a citizen with regards to freedom of expression,” he said.
China’s rubber-stamp parliament session meets in early March — an occasion that is often used as an excuse by the authorities to rein in petitioners, dissidents and rights lawyers.
Since last February, President Hu Jintao has redoubled the urgency of his campaign to strengthen “social management” and pre-empt unrest before he retires from the Communist Party leadership in late 2012 and from the state presidency shortly after that.
Beijing police were not available for comment.
A German official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters on Friday that Mo was “invited, but did not come.”
Mo, who has defended many dissidents critical of Communist Party rule, said the other person invited to the dinner, Wu Si, editor in chief of the Chinese magazine “Yanhuang Chunqiu” that is read by many retired officials, was able to attend.
The restrictions on Mo suggests that a crackdown on dissenting views may be stepped up ahead of what could be a tricky leadership transition later in the year, when the party’s long-standing focus on fending off political challenges is likely to intensify.
Chinese courts have handed down heavy jail sentences to three dissidents since December for “inciting subversion” or “subversion” — charges that the government often invokes against people critical of Communist Party rule.
“On several human rights issues, we have, at times, thought China’s response is somewhat harsh,” Merkel told reporters on Thursday, adding that she stressed the importance of freedom of expression and free access and discourse on the Internet.
“We think having many voices in a society will play a positive role,” she said.
Mo said the restrictions on his movements betrayed a “retrograde mentality” on the part of the authorities.
“You can’t pull China back, you can’t go back to our closed-door policy and say we can’t mix with the outside world,” he said. “It is unwise.”
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke and Lucy Hornby; Editing by Ken Wills and Robert Birsel