Just a week after new Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping took power, with pledges to root out corruption and sweep away entrenched bureaucratic ways, there have been signs that, in some areas of life at least, it remains business as usual in China. Last weekend, poet Li Bifeng was jailed for 12 years in Sichuan province, in a case that friends and family said was politically motivated. Li, who was previously jailed for involvement in the Tiananmen democracy protests of 1989, had been in detention for more than a year on charges of contract fraud in a business deal. But his supporters say that he was punished because the authorities believed he had helped one of his friends, well-known dissident writer Liao Yiwu, escape from China last year. Liao, who is now in Germany, says Li played no part in his escape, and has organized an online petition calling for his release.
It also emerged this week that a Beijing citizen who compared the scene at this month’s Communist Party Congress to a horror movie, and suggested in a post on Twitter that all the delegates would die when the building collapsed, has been detained for the past fortnight on suspicion of ‘spreading terrorist information’.
Zhai Xiaobing tweeted that the congress would be the setting for the next installment of the horror film Final Destination, saying the date of its opening, November 8, would see a “shocking world premiere.” His friends say the post was obviously a joke—but Zhai was reportedly taken away by security officials in the suburban Beijing county of Miyun the day before the Congress opened, and held for investigation.
An online petition calling for Zhai’s freedom, started by well-known blogger and free-speech advocate Wen Yunchao, called on the police to acquire a “sense of humor,” and suggested that the authorities should not undermine public “good will” towards the new party leadership.
Some prominent intellectuals have retained hopes that despite the presence of several veteran conservatives in the new Politburo Standing Committee, new top leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang might still gradually usher in changes to China’s political system. Few expect major democratic reforms, but hopes have been expressed that these younger leaders might at least be more in tune with the far more open social atmosphere which has become the norm in China since the dawn of Internet age—one in which irreverent comments and public criticism of officials are now commonplace.
There have been some recent victories for internet users: over the past two months, several officials have lost their posts following online revelations of corruption. And a village official in the southern municipality of Chongqing, who spent 15 months in labor reeducation after denouncing the Communist Party and criticizing the city’s former leader Bo Xilai’s anti-crime crackdown (which lawyers say flouted the rule of law) and socialist-culture campaigns, was finally freed this week.
Ren Jianyu’s release followed a campaign online and even in China’s official media: a commentary in the Global Times newspaper (which is published by party mouthpiece the People’s Daily), for example, argued that the “expression of public opinion and criticisms” was “the basis of public supervision,” and could “help improve social governance and push forward society’s progress.” Jailing people for negative comments, it argued, was “outdated” and “against today’s freedom of speech and rule of law.”
However, some observers suggested that Ren’s release could owe more to the recent discrediting of Bo, who was sacked from the Politburo earlier this year and is under investigation for corruption and possible collusion with his wife, who in August was jailed for life for the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.
And while the authorities are now frequently claiming to welcome public ‘scrutiny’ online, paranoia over critics and whistleblowers clearly continues. This week, a former journalist in southwestern Guizhou province is reported to have been detained, after revealing on his blog the story of five street children who died after taking shelter from the cold in a refuse bin. The story subsequently made global headlines, embarrassing the authorities. The writer, Li Yuanlong, was forced to leave his home by officials and taken for “a holiday” at an undisclosed location, according to his son, who told Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper that the authorities were “trying to prevent him [Li] from helping other reporters follow up on the incident.”
Li’s detention echoes what is now a common pattern in China, in which sensitive individuals are removed from circulation at sensitive times, and held either under effective house arrest at home, or in what are known as “black [i.e. unofficial] jails.” During the run-up to the recent Communist Party Congress, rights groups say over a hundred people faced such treatment—including the well-known human-rights activist Hu Jia, who was only released from a three-year jail sentence last year.
In some cases the hard line taken against dissidents may be the choice of local authorities rather than necessarily being decreed from the center, says Professor Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, but he adds that it is nevertheless a sign of the prevailing mood in Chinese political circles:
“The golden rule seems to be that no one gets bad marks for picking on dissidents and others labeled trouble makers,” he says, “while for those who are lenient, on the other hand, the risks if things go wrong are still high.”
And Brown argues that a leadership worried about the potential for unrest in a fast diversifying society with growing economic inequality is unlikely to reverse the tough approach that has seen the rapid growth of internal security budgets in recent years. “We see an unholy convergence of security agencies keen to justify their budget bottom line by proactively picking on good quality ‘enemies’, and an environment in which elite leaders are risk averse, watching their backs all the time, and therefore keen to compete with each other over who is the most zealous defender of the faith,” he says.
One prominent victim of this tough approach to security is Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo, who is still in jail serving an 11-year sentence for subversion, after organizing an online petition calling for political reform in 2008. (And dissident artist Ai Weiwei, though currently free after his three-month detention in 2011, is still facing a fine of more than $2 million for tax evasion.) Brown says it’s not impossible that a high-profile dissident like Liu might be released early, in a year or two, and sent into exile in the U.S. in an attempt to assuage international criticism. But in the current climate, even this faint glimmer of hope may be out of reach for lesser-known dissidents.