The Widening Net

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The following piece, by CHRD’s International Director Renee Xia, originally appeared on the website of Foreign Policy magazine on April 5, 2011. It is available there at

China’s crackdown on human-rights lawyers, activists, and online dissidents goes from bad to worse


In China, the most extensive crackdown against pro-democracy and human rights activists in more than a decade continues with no end in sight. In the four weeks since my Foreign Policy article “Missing Before Action” — on Beijing’s nervous response to calls within China for a “Jasmine Revolution,” modeled on the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world — the situation for Chinese human rights activists and lawyers has only gone from bad to worse.

Over the weekend, the prominent Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who has been vocal about human rights abuses in China, was detained at Beijing Capital Airport. Previously, his high international profile may have afforded his some greater protection, but no longer.

Today, he’s just one name among many. Since mid-February, the nonprofit I work for, Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), has confirmed that Chinese authorities have detained at least 28 individuals, disappeared more than 30, and put more than 200 under house arrest or round-the-clock scrutiny. Three of the criminally detained have been formally arrested, five have been released on bail to await trial, and two have been sent to “residential surveillance” in unknown locations. At least a dozen of the disappeared remain missing, including a number of prominent human rights lawyers.

But these numbers only provide clues to the real picture. CHRD has received information about many more cases of criminal detention, disappearances, and torture than we can currently verify or make public. For instance, there is an unconfirmed report about four artists being criminally detained for “creating disturbances” after opening a performance art installment, called “Performance Art in Sensitive Zone,” wherein an artist strapped with jasmine flowers was buried in the ground. One artist who filmed the exhibit in Beijing and put it online was also reportedly detained. Families have told CHRD that they have been warned against talking publicly about such detentions, on threat that their loved ones will face longer sentences.

One nagging question is why these particular individuals — some with no apparent connection to calls for a Jasmine Revolution — have been singled out for punishment. Many of those detained were previously not known internationally; so what does the persecution of this particular group of activists say about the regime’s tactics and motivations?

The order to nip in the bud any reactions to the Middle East uprisings was issued from the top on Feb. 19, as Perry Link has reported in his blog for the New York Review of Books. It was delivered by top Party officials at a closed-door emergency meeting on the campus of the Central Party School in Beijing to top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders, including members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and leaders from the ministries, provinces, and the army, as well as universities and large corporations. It was coded, in typical CCP parlance, with language of maintaining “social harmony” and protecting the interests of the people. And as the order was relayed down the rungs of the bureaucracy, it was, as always, read by security police at all levels as a license to arrest, detain, raid, and intimidate without legal constraints.

For lower-level national security police, the order is also an opportunity to fatten their budgets by claiming a larger piece of the pie known as “funds to maintain stability.” On March 5, the Ministry of Finance announced the 2011 budget for maintaining stability would approach $95 billion — up 21.5 percent from 2010. With the incentive to boost local security budgets, police have aggressively pursued anyone who might fit the profile of “de-harmonizing elements.” In other words, the greater the number of individuals whom police can label as “dissidents” within their communities, the greater the amount of funding they can request in the future.

Police in various provinces and cities have grabbed their newly authorized power to serve their own varied purposes, sweeping up veteran activists and community organizers, targeting a new crop of younger Internet-savvy activists, and punishing anyone who blogged, Tweeted, or was actually present at the Jasmine Revolution protests, which took place in various cities across the country on Feb. 20. (Subsequent calls for rallies on Feb. 27 and March 7 were largely unheeded, due to heavy preemptive police action.)

In Beijing, police went to the extreme of disappearing some of the most prominent human rights lawyers and activists, abandoning any pretense of acting within the boundaries of China’s laws. After being taken away by police in mid February, lawyers Teng Biao and Jiang Tianyong and activist Gu Chuan have been incommunicado for more than 40 days. Beijing police sent lawyer Tang Jitian, who was detained on February 16 and then went missing, back to his ex-wife in Jilin province after subjecting him to severe torture and warning him not to disclose any details.

In Guangzhou, human rights lawyer Liu Shihui was attacked and severely beaten by unidentified men on February 20. He was subsequently detained for criminal investigation. Guangzhou police also detained the human rights lawyer Tang Jingling (whose license to practice law was stripped in 2006 after he advised Guangdong farmers in their drive to remove a corrupt village chief), and Ye Du, a writer and active member of an independent Chinese authors’ association. Both have been forcibly sent to locations away from their homes for “residential surveillance.” Both have had their residences repeatedly searched, and their families have been intimidated by police and warned against speaking up. CHRD has received information about another Guangdong lawyer being detained, but was told not to publicize the account.

In Shanghai, police detained lawyer Li Tiantian on February 19; nothing has been heard from him since. Meanwhile, the activist Feng Zhenghu was briefly detained for interrogation, and his home was raided by police. Two older women, Tan Lanying and Yang Lamei, veteran petitioners, who were said to be present at the Feb. 20 protest, were criminally detained: Yang for “creating a disturbance,” and Tan for “assembling a crowd to disrupt the order of a public place.”

Also notable is the aggressiveness with which authorities in Sichuan province have pursued local activists. Three activists — Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei, and Ding Mao — detained last month for criminal investigation were formally arrested for “inciting subversion against state power” on March 28. (Chen Wei and Ding Mao have both previously served jail time for their roles in the Tiananmen protests.)

But the recent zeal of Sichuan authorities, according to Chinese activists I have spoken to, can only be understood in the context of the upcoming 18th CCP Plenary Meeting, which will decide who enters the country’s most powerful decision-making body — the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo. The current party secretary of Sichuan province, Liu Qibao, is eyeing a spot for himself. With his predecessor, the former Sichuan boss, Zhou Yongkang, as the current head of the CCP Central Committee of Politics and Law, which oversees the country’s judiciary and law enforcement, Liu is in a position where producing results to please Zhou may win him political advancement.

Whatever the motives, the crackdowns have gained momentum. In recent weeks, even activists with no evidence of a direct connection to the Jasmine Revolution protests have been targeted by police. Take the case of Wang Lihong, who is one of the most venerated longtime citizen journalists and rights-campaign organizers in China. Her detention in Beijing since March 25 has sent a chill through the activists’ community. Wang witnessed the 1989 suppression of the pro-democracy movement; she quit her government job shortly thereafter in protest. Over the past two decades, she has traveled all over the country to document rights abuses and interview victims and witnesses in her capacity as an independent “citizen with conscience.” But at 55, she is now often bedridden with back problems and not often on the road. Yet on March 25, without warning or obvious reason — other than a longstanding grudge against her on the part of local security officials — she was detained for “creating a disturbance.” Her son tried to deliver medicine and warm clothes to the detention center where she is being held, but was turned away.

In addition to targeting older activists, the regime is also turning its attention toward the new Twitter generation in China. The case of Zhang Jiannan, better known by his online name, Secretary Zhang, is illustrative. Police accused Zhang of taking part in an “illegal demonstration,” namely joining the Jasmine Revolution protest. A few years ago, Zhang was unknown. But the founding of the website 1984 BBS (named after George Orwell’s novel 1984), an online discussion forum dedicated to discussion of current events and the publication of censored news, put him under the microscope of censors. It was shut down by the government on October 12, 2010. The last entries on his Twitter account @SecretaryZhang included messages about the Jasmine Revolution in Egypt, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, and other news blocked within China. He was detained on March 2, and has not been heard from since.

CHRD has also confirmed the formal arrest of Ran Yunfei, the Chengdu-based online opinion leader; the disappearance of the Beijing-based online writer/editor Gu Chuan; Communication University student Lan Ruoyu; and the blogger/journalist Hu Di, among others. Those detained without formal charges include 1984BBS moderator Zhang Jiannan and cyber activists Hua Chunhui and Guo Weidong.

Meanwhile, Ran Yunfei, a prolific 46-year-old writer and signer of the pro-democracy tract Charter 08, has been held in detention since Feb. 20. In the last entry on his microblog, he wrote that China is “a country where ugly and horrible events beyond human imagination still take place.” Some of the last entries to his account, which had attracted more than 44,000 followers, included messages about Bahrain, Libya, and Jasmine Revolution.

Another blogger and activist targeted by police is 31-year-old Gu Chuan, a signer of Charter 08 and a protégé of Liu Xiaobo. Gu was taken from his home by police on Feb. 19 and has not been heard from for more than 40 days. During this time, police have visited his wife, who is nursing a baby and taking care of a toddler, to pressure her to urge her husband to quit activism. She has refused. Following orders from the police, her landlord has recently canceled her lease, leaving the family in dire straights.

One can never guess precisely how the police choose whom to arrest or how severe a punishment to mete out. In a regime such as China’s, these are often decisions made by faceless officials. What is clear is that the Middle East revolutions have made Chinese leaders nervous. They have gone after those they fear most, but the scope and arbitrariness of the recent sweep is shocking.

The fact the state feels emboldened to openly target an internationally known figure like Ai Weiwei is chilling. At the time of publication, nothing has yet been heard from him. His fate remains unknown, as does the severity of the ongoing crackdown. But so far, there are few signs of pressure lifting anytime soon.

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