The fiercest wave of repression that the Chinese government has launched in more than a decade, targeting lawyers, bloggers, social activists, journalists, and artists, signals a harsh new intolerance of criticism, local and foreign analysts say.
At a sensitive political moment as China’s leadership prepares for a transition of power to a new generation, it is aimed at staving off the kind of popular uprising bringing profound change to the Middle East, toppling rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatening others in Libya and Yemen.
And the security forces’ blunt disregard for Chinese law – disappearing some victims into secret jails, detaining others without charge, and keeping more under illegal house arrest – shows how far they are prepared to go, in defiance of widespread international condemnation. Although the Middle East is far away, some of the social problems that have sparked unrest there – corruption and vast inequality – are familiar in China, too.
“They are afraid of what has happened in North Africa,” says Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer. “A revolution in China is very unlikely, but the government is used to thinking of worst-case scenarios.”
Over the past eight weeks, more than 100 activists have disappeared, been detained, or are confined to their homes. The internationally renowned artist and government critic Ai Weiwei, seized on his way to Hong Kong and now under investigation for alleged “economic crimes” according to officials, is only the most prominent.
Other casualties range from Christians arrested for trying to worship outdoors after being evicted from their normal premises to patrons of a gay bar in Shanghai that was raided recently and Beijing college students whose planned debate on the 1911 overthrow of the last Chinese emperor was canceled on the orders of local Communist Party officials.
At the same time, censors have tightened the noose on the Internet, which 460 million Chinese use, narrowing the range of permissible comment on blogs, chat rooms, and other forums.
Searching for “Ai Weiwei” or “revolution” on Sina Weibo, the most popular Twitter-style site in China, brings up a message reading: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the search results have not been shown.”
Few outsiders believe that Arab-style unrest is likely here. But the role that social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which have Chinese clones, have played in the uprisings throughout the Middle East seems to have prompted an official rethink about the impact of free expression.
Unease with online expression
Until recently, the authorities appeared to view the Internet as a safety valve where citizens could vent on certain subjects – within limits. Now they seem to fear it as a petri dish cultivating dangerously unsanctioned opinions that might spread more widely.
“There has been a reassessment,” says one senior Western diplomat. “They are utterly spooked by the ‘Jasmine’ revolutions. They have seen the damage that the Internet can do, and they are not going to take any risks.”
Behind the government’s crackdown, says Li Datong, the former editor of a Communist Party youth magazine, are memories of unrest in 1989. That year, popular dissatisfaction erupted into protests nationwide that ended only when troops dispersed demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds.
“There is an old Chinese saying,” he recalls. “ ‘When you have been bitten by a snake, you are afraid of a piece of rope for 10 years.’ ” At the same time, today’s Chinese leaders do not have the broad authority that Deng Xiaoping could draw on when he ordered the Army into Tiananmen Square. The next generation of leaders, to be chosen at the 18th Communist Party Congress next year from a slate of generally uncharismatic candidates, will probably have even less.
“The government seems to feel that if it does not act, intellectuals will grow more active, and things could get out of hand,” says the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They want to stop it now.”
“President Hu Jintao has set the goal that society must maintain absolute stability before the party congress,” says Mr. Li, who was fired from the magazine several years ago for publishing an article that questioned the ruling Communist Party’s version of history. “The people down below [him] take any extreme measure they think necessary to get the job done.”
'Nobody is safe'
The tactics of intimidation that the security forces have used over the past two months have severely chilled the atmosphere among those who have dared to challenge the authorities in court by defending government critics or on the Internet by speaking out.
“I cannot rule out being disappeared or detained myself,” says Li Fangping, a lawyer who has taken on several high-profile human rights cases in the past. “Nobody is safe at the moment.
“People have lost hope in the rule of law and laws cannot protect us,” he adds. He has reason for such despair. Last month a government spokeswoman warned foreign reporters who had been roughed up by plainclothes policemen as they waited on a Beijing street to see if anyone would respond to an Internet call for protest: “Don’t use the law as a shield.”
“There are people who ... want to make trouble in China,” added Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. “For people with these kinds of motives, I think no law can protect them.”
The illegality of many of the detentions has prompted the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to express its “serious concern” at recent events. It said it had received reports that “there is a pattern of enforced disappearances in China, where people suspected of dissent are taken to secret detention facilities and are then often tortured or intimidated.”
Cycle of repression and relaxation
Analysts differ over whether the current crackdown is a particularly harsh moment in a cycle of repression and relaxation, or whether it heralds a longer-lasting policy. This year’s domestic security budget, which at $95 billion exceeds even the $92 billion allocated to the People’s Liberation Army, suggests long-term plans to make social stability the government’s top priority. “This will last at least until the party congress,” says Li, the former editor.
On the other hand, argues the diplomat, “these things tend to run out of steam in time, and too many people in the system know that it is self-defeating. It might get worse, but it won’t end in Soviet-style totalitarianism.
“Still,” he adds, “it is shocking that a society of this scale can behave like this in this age … that at this stage of China’s development they feel they have to exercise power by using so much repression. Whatever is worrying them, it is certainly a sign of their weakness."