Weighty Times, Aggressive Measures: China Must End Heightened Crackdown Ahead of Party Congress

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(Chinese Human Rights Defenders – November 1, 2012) – As the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress approaches, police and other security personnel have ramped up harsh measures against Chinese dissidents, human rights activists and petitioners, depriving them of their liberty and subjecting them to myriad abuses. Citizens have been interrogated, beaten and detained in concerted efforts to suppress free speech and movement. Though tightened restrictions at “sensitive periods” have become routine in past years in China, the current onslaught on civil society by authorities clearly has a higher purpose: to “maintain stability” before and during the Party Congress in order to ensure a smooth, once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

“Since early October, Chinese authorities have engaged in a campaign of intimidation and incarceration to preempt any potential expressions of dissent or protest,” said Renee Xia, CHRD’s international director. “China’s top political leaders are very nervous, as they have since early this year been consumed by one of the most destabilizing and disharmonious power struggles in decades.”

CHRD sources estimate that at least hundreds, if not thousands, have had their personal liberty restricted or deprived. Many in Beijing who are often under surveillance have been subjected to greater controls, with guards stationed outside their homes, and police warning them not to take part in activities and “escorting” them if they wish to go out. Police in the capital have held activist Hu Jia (胡佳) under house arrest for over a month, and the harsher restrictions are taking a toll on his health, which is already weakened by liver disease. Several other activists in Beijing—including dissident Zhang Zuhua (张祖桦); Xu Zhiyong (许志永), a founder of the NGO Open Constitution Initiative; house church member Xu Yonghai (徐永海); and human rights lawyers Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵) and Li Fangping (李方平)—have been put under tight surveillance, followed by police or warned not to speak or write about sensitive matters.

This new spate of assault on dissent has reached well beyond notable activists and dissidents in Beijing and affected many citizens in other parts of the country. No threat is deemed too small for police to spring into action. Lawyers and many others have been warned to lie low by police in Shenzhen, where the atmosphere is reportedly very tense. Activist Li Zhengran (李峥然) was forcibly taken out of the city, and Shenzhen resident and cartoonist Cheng Tao (成涛) was whisked away from his home in the middle of the night. Shanghai police summoned Internet writer Li Huaping (李化平) for questioning for “disrupting social order,” shortly after Li had returned from a 17-month backpacking tour around China, which included visits to locations of well-known human rights cases. To demonstrate that timing can be everything, two farmers in Shanghai, Cao Yuyan (曹玉燕) and Luo Xiuli (罗秀丽), were recently taken into custody for applying—for the 69th attempt—to hold a public demonstration about land seizures.

Authorities in Guangzhou have restricted the movements of several individuals, including scholar and filmmaker Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) and lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), warning them not to leave the city, grant interviews or receive guests. Meanwhile, Guangzhou police have been forcibly sending back to their hometowns many human rights defenders who reside in the city. Police in the provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou are also applying pressure on activists, including the oft-harassed members of the Guizhou Human Rights Forum. There has been word that supporters of the 1989 labor leader Li Wangyang (李旺阳), whose suspicious death in June sparked outcries over police malfeasance, would not be released from various restrictions in Hunan Province until the Party Congress is over.

Some Chinese activists have told CHRD that China’s presumptive top leaders Xi Jinping (习近平) and Li Keqiang (李克强) are expected to maintain the repressive political system that perpetuates such rights deprivations, since they themselves have had to rely on it to ascend to leadership positions within the oligarchy. Chinese human rights lawyers and activists who have spoken to CHRD see little hope for democratic and rule-of-law reforms under Xi Jinping’s leadership, even if they are optimistic and inspired by the growing strength of civil society in achieving positive changes. The events that spelled the ends to the high-flying careers of Bo Xilai (薄熙来) and Wang Lijun (王立军) in Chongqing have revealed desperate power struggles within the Party, and they also point to conflicts within its highest ranks. However, the new leaders, much like the outgoing ones, will not simply let go off their grip, with such unrestricted power and huge personal interests and financial wealth at stake.

Chinese activists and dissident intellectuals told CHRD that, during the past decade under Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) and Wen Jiabao (温家宝), political repression has intensified, with a heightened focus on targeting civil society. And the Hu-Wen government’s techniques of repression have become more sophisticated compared to those under Jiang Zemin (江泽民). “Stability maintenance” has been bolstered as a way to strip the rights of human rights lawyers, activists, petitioners and digital activists. This is a departure from the reign of President Jiang in the 1990s, which was characterized by its suppression of members of the China Democracy Party and Falun Gong practitioners. Methods of suppression under the recent administration have become more calculating than before, with authorities making blatant and extensive use of diverse and often harsher techniques to retaliate against activists, including abduction, enforced disappearance, torture, illegal detention in “black jails,” soft detention, forced “tourism” (a form of residential surveillance away from home), and trumped-up charges like “disrupting public order” or “tax evasion.”

With the rise of civil society over the past decade and far more communication tools at activists’ disposal, the dynamics of human rights activism and the Hu-Wen regime’s responses have also evolved. Today, activists are constantly going on the offensive, particularly via social media, and evading censorship with the aid of the Internet, while authorities are tapping into government revenues to arm themselves with the most advanced technology to silence, monitor and attack cyber activists. Under the new Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang regime, major battles over rights protections and political reforms will continue to be fought in cyberspace, which has more and more frequently led to real-world citizen actions. Public protests, now estimated at more than 100,000 a year, will also keep growing in size and intensity.

The Hu-Wen leadership left its “legacy” of wielding influence through periodic massive crackdowns, such as those seen in connection with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, “Charter 08,” and following the online calls for “Jasmine Revolution” rallies. Harsh punishments given to dissidents and activists, beginning with the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) in December 2009, followed by a string of long prison terms handed out to activists over the past year, underscore the unyielding will of the outgoing leaders to squash dissent.

Though China’s outgoing rulers have attempted “soft diplomacy” and lofty-sounding rhetoric about building a “harmonious society,” their policies have produced anything but. And if recent history and current conditions offer clues, the future looks no brighter than it did a decade ago, which bodes poorly for the many who long for greater protection for human rights under a democratic system with rule of law in China. As one human rights lawyer said to CHRD, “We count on ourselves, on actions taken by citizens, and not on any leader or this political system, to bring about the desired change.”

Media contacts

Renee Xia, International Director, +1 240 374 8937, reneexia@chrdnet.com

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