China’s crackdown on dissent is described as the harshest in decades
For five days last week, the confessions poured forth from Chinese human rights activists and attorneys rounded up last summer and held incommunicado for a year. Four men, facing trial for subversion, cowered before a court where they were represented by lawyers they didn’t choose.
A fifth person, knowing her husband was detained and teenage son under surveillance, declared her wrongs in a videotaped interview.
China is in the midst of what many overseas scholars say is its harshest crackdown on human rights and civil society in decades. Since Xi Jinping came to power nearly four years ago, hundreds of activists, lawyers, writers, publishers and employees of nongovernmental groups have been rounded up. Many more have been threatened and intimidated. Internet news sites have been ordered to stop publishing reports from sources that aren’t sanctioned by the state.
Even as China has been touting its efforts to boost the “rule of law,” some critics of the government have vanished under mysterious circumstances in places like Thailand and Hong Kong, only to surface months later in Chinese custody, claiming rather unbelievably they had turned themselves in voluntarily. Many of those detained have appeared on state-run TV confessing to crimes before they have had a day in court.
“As an old timer who’s been studying China since the Mao era, I have to say it’s the worst I’ve seen since then,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at UC San Diego. “It’s very discouraging.”
The activists and lawyer prosecuted last week confessed to having illegally organized protests and drawn attention to sensitive cases at the behest of “foreign forces” in order to “smear the [Communist] party and attack the Chinese government.” They had erred in accepting interviews with international journalists, they added, and traveled abroad to participate in interfaith conferences and law seminars infiltrated by separatists and funded by enemies of China.
“I want to remind everybody to wipe their eyes and clearly see the ugly faces of hostile forces overseas,” one of the defendants, Zhai Yanmin, said, according to China’s main state-run news agency. “Never be fooled by their ideas of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ and ‘benefiting the public.’”
The verdicts, if not justice, came swiftly — all four men were found guilty within hours, with two receiving terms of at least seven years. Officials said the woman, Wang Yu, was released, though family and friends say they have not seen or heard from her. Relatives and colleagues of all five said their statements appeared to have been coerced.
The current crackdown, Shirk said, represents a turnabout from what appeared to be relatively steady gains in individual freedom in China.
“It’s not been a smooth straight line, and it’s true that this process has been slower than many people anticipated,” she said. “But we didn’t anticipate what looks like a U-turn back to the bad old days of a highly repressive police state.”
For much of the outside world, grasping the extent of the campaign has not been easy, given a constant flood of headlines that seem to showcase ever-deeper diplomatic and commercial connections between China and the West.
Last fall, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron said ties with Beijing were entering a “golden era.” In Paris in December, Xi won praise for helping broker a global climate change pact. And next month, China will host President Obama and other leaders at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies are buying European soccer teams. Chinese directors are shooting films for Hollywood studios and Disney has just opened a $5.5-billion theme park in Shanghai. Record numbers of Chinese students are studying at U.S. high schools and colleges.
“There hasn’t been that much of a cost, so far at least, for Xi Jinping. He literally got the royal treatment when he went to England. He wasn’t being treated like someone who deserved to be kept at arm’s length,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China historian at UC Irvine. “After 1989, China and the Communist Party had an interest in shedding the stigma of being seen as a pariah state to international investors and others. I don’t think there’s that kind of pressure now.”
“Since Xi Jinping came to power nearly four years ago, hundreds of activists, lawyers, writers, publishers and employees of nongovernmental groups have been rounded up. Many more have been threatened and intimidated. Internet news sites have been ordered to stop publishing reports from sources that aren’t sanctioned by the state.”
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“The current crackdown, Shirk said, represents a turnabout from what appeared to be relatively steady gains in individual freedom in China.”