Clampdown on dissidents in China reflects confidence
For China’s hard-pressed dissidents, last year started with an act of solidarity and ended on a note of betrayal.
In what is now memorialised as the “Southern Weekend incident”, journalists at the Guangzhou-based reformist newspaper issued a call for support for their readers after censors stepped in to change an editorial calling for China to stand by the provisions of its own constitution. Among those answering the call were seasoned activists Guo Feixong, Liu Yuandong and Sun Desheng, who helped to rally hundreds of protesters to the newspaper’s defence. They were later arrested by the police and charged with “assembling crowds to disturb public order”.
The three are still under detention and awaiting trial. But towards the end of the year, news broke that the charges under which they were held were based on information provided to the police by Southern Weekend, the newspaper in whose defence they had rallied.
This is not so surprising. Though it pushes as hard as the censors permit for reform, Southern Weekend is ultimately owned by the Communist Party of China’s Guangdong provincial committee. And while that body might want a lively, liberal and above all commercially successful paper, it wants nothing to do with an increasingly beleaguered group of activists at the sharp end of President Xi Jinping’s authoritarian social and political agenda. Such are the limits of Chinese liberalism.
China’s dissidents never have a good year, but conditions became brutal last year. Dissident sources claim that 200 activists have been formally arrested since April 2013. And arrest itself is a culmination of a process of repression that can build from invitations to “drink tea” with the authorities (and receive a large bout of verbal intimidation in the process), to intrusive overt surveillance, house arrest and administrative detention.
It’s also a process that spreads from activists to family members, who may find themselves arrested on dubious charges, turfed out of their homes and have their children prevented from attending school.
Sometimes a point is reached where formal arrest can come as a kind of relief. Xu Zhiyong, a prominent long-time dissident and founder of the New Citizen’s Movement, was formally charged – again on public order grounds – in July last year. A longtime friend and fellow activist immediately sent him a letter whose first line read: “Congratulations for having been put in jail.”
Mr Xu is a longtime target for the authorities. He was previously detained in 2009 when his Open Constitution Initiative NGO was shut down on apparently bogus charges of tax evasion. Like many activists, he first became prominent as one of the wave of “rights defenders” who emerged during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Unlike the 1989 generation of protesters, rights defenders did not explicitly call for the overthrow of the party. Instead, they insisted that it abided by the provisions of China’s constitution. China has a classic “retail constitution” stuffed with theoretical rights and freedoms and apparently adopted on the grounds that a first-rate rising power has to have a constitution with all the trimmings. Abiding by it is a different matter.
The objective of the rights defenders was to use the inability of China to live up to its own constitution as a lever to force political change. This was not so naive as it perhaps sounds. In policy terms, China is a relatively open environment. The party itself contains everything from neo-Maoists to Hayekians. Given this, it did not seem inconceivable that simply by promoting awareness of systemic abuses in party rule, the monolith might crack and its constituents re-form as participants in a democratic order.
That was not the way things turned out. At first greeted with a kind of bemused tolerance, activists found themselves increasingly pushed to the margins as their campaigning began to clash directly with the interests of powerful groups and individuals within the party. Two turning points seem to have been the publication of Charter 08 – a blueprint for constitutional reform – and attempts to replicate the “Arab Spring” in China with a “Jasmine Spring”.
Neither of these initiatives had much effect among the Chinese public. But together they seem to have signalled to the authorities the point at which dissidents openly revealed themselves as enemies of the system.
No system can have enemies more moderate. One of the ironies of the current wave of arrests is that many of them are for promoting ideas that are already the subject of open debate within the Communist Party – such as compulsory asset disclosure for officials – or calling for reforms that the party itself is embarking on, such as reforming the hukou system of household registration. The crime here seems to be simply that of calling for these things independently and in public.
One can see a rationale for this in Xi Jinping’s ongoing attempts to rectify the party across the board. In fact, the renewed intensity of the pressure on dissidents is partly a function of a drive to have the party shed its administrative flab and become a sharper, more focused instrument of control. It also guards a flank. At a time when Mr Xi is subjecting the Communist Party to internal stresses, there can be no question of allowing even the most rudimentary forms of external challenge.
This is sometimes put down to the idea that the party is “nervous” or “threatened” by the people. Yet the targeting of dissidents is part of a wider matrix of “social management” policies that seem motivated by an almost bizarre confidence. The overall aim seems to be to produce a kind of utopian ideal of authoritarianism, one where being a dissident will not only be impossible but actually inconceivable. Meanwhile, the breaking of butterflies upon wheels continues.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China and its growing interaction with the rest of the world
Updated: January 19, 2014 04:00 AM