When she got off school last Thursday, Huang Qiufeng, the high spirited 12-year old daughter of migrant workers, dropped by the local library in this scruffy village on the outskirts of Beijing, as she does from time to time.
She found it closed, replaced by a convenience store. The brightly painted letters on the wall spelling out “BOOK” were obscured by shelves full of instant noodles.
“The people here were very nice and I really liked the library,” Qiufeng said. “But now it’s gone.”
And so had ten other children’s libraries across China run by Li Ren, an educational charity. The libraries are among the victims of a sweeping orthodoxy laid down by President Xi Jinping, who continues to consolidate his power. While crackdowns on budding expression here come and go, the new variant is spreading its net more widely, ensnaring even prominent moderate voices.
In recent weeks and months, scholars have seen their books banned after they voiced sympathy for pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong; artists with independent ideas have been silenced; lawyers representing political prisoners have been locked up; and human rights campaigners and civil society activists have been detained by the hundreds.
“Nobody knows any more where the red lines are, what could bring you trouble,” says Li Fangping, one of a remaining handful of high profile human rights lawyers not detained. “They are applied completely selectively.”
The result, says the head of one foreign non-governmental organization that is finding local partners increasingly skittish about working with him, “is that everyone lives in fear, not knowing what is acceptable and what is not.”
He Feihui, the young man who ran Li Ren’s libraries, certainly never expected to fall afoul of authorities. But he thinks he knows why they caught the government’s attention: “We emphasize individual values in our educational concept,” he explains. The name Li Ren signifies and means "becoming a person."
And the way Li Ren volunteers encouraged kids to do voluntary work, to engage in teamwork and elect their team leaders, fostered a civic consciousness and spirit that the party currently deems subversive.
The party’s Central Committee said as much 18 months ago in a “Communique on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” It warned that “advocates of civil society want to squeeze the party out of leadership…to the point that their advocacy is becoming a serious form of political opposition.”
Party cadres were also warned of other perils such as constitutional democracy, “universal values” like democracy and human rights, neoliberal economic theory and Western ideas of press freedom. The communiqué, known as Document No. 9, is not public; Gao Yu, a veteran Chinese journalist, has been detained and faces trial on charges of leaking state secrets after she allegedly passed the document to an overseas website.
The unusually harsh wave of repression that President Xi’s government has unleashed would appear to be a direct application of Document No. 9's guidelines.
Some 300 human rights defenders and citizens’ rights activists have been detained in the past six months, according to human rights lawyer Teng Biao, currently on a fellowship at Harvard University in Boston. Some were moderates who always tried to work within the system and advocate dialog with the government.
Last month, Uighur economist Ilham Tohti, a prominent moderate, was jailed for life. Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has been in detention since June on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.” Xu Zhiyong, who led a grassroots anti-corruption campaign, was jailed for four years last March.
Moderates pay the price
Less well known, but equally committed to working within the law according to his friends and family, are figures like Chang Boyang, a public interest lawyer who has taken many anti-discrimination cases on behalf of hepatitis sufferers.
Mr. Chang's case is instructive: He was detained last May in his hometown of Zhengzhou after unsuccessfully seeking a meeting with three of his clients at a local police station, where they were being held because they had attended a private memorial ceremony for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“I can’t believe they arrested my father,” says his daughter, Chang Ruoyu. “He is a very mild person…who concentrates on the law. He is not a radical and he has friends in the government. He has always been very low key. It’s crazy.”
“Chang’s fate shows that even a moderate ally, if he is not controlled by the party, is not allowed,” says William Nee, a researcher for human rights watchdog Amnesty International in Hong Kong.
“The leaders seem determined not to let any sort of intellectual opposition arise,” says Sidney Rittenberg, the first American to join the Chinese Communist Party, who maintains close ties with many influential political figures here. “They are attempting to silence voices that might become focal points for dissent.”
That, he argues, is because China’s leaders have studied the collapse of the Soviet Union in great detail. They have concluded that the Soviet empire began to rot after Moscow permitted seemingly anodyne discussion groups, such as Li Ren organized for high school students, or poetry readings such as the gathering that Chinese police raided outside Beijing two weeks ago, arresting 10 artists.
“They believe that independent minded politically active intellectuals who are not entirely with the program could be the beginning of a substantial threat,” Mr. Rittenberg suggests. “The policy is to nip anything in the bud before it becomes a force.”
Under China’s last president, Hu Jintao, the government stressed “stability maintenance” in its efforts to keep civil society on a leash. Since taking office two years ago, Mr. Xi has adopted a policy of “civil society elimination,” argues lawyer Teng.
“The government sees civil society as a threat to its power, and thinks that if they don’t control its growth …it will become a powerful force for political change,” Teng adds. “That’s why they fear they have to arrest more and more people to keep the political system safe.”
That policy might work in the short term, predicts Teng, because the repression has “a chilling effect” on lawyers wondering whether to take a sensitive political case, or on environmental activists thinking of organizing a seminar on dam building, or on the volunteers who ran the Li Ren library here in Picun, who were too afraid to talk to a foreign journalist.
But “it is very difficult to control all the political process and the whole ideological agenda,” says Mr. Nee. “I am not sure it is possible, and that is one reason for this continuous crackdown. There really is no end in sight.”