Why China Is Cracking Down

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Why China Is Cracking Down

The detention of Ai Weiwei is part of a broader strategy, says Kelley Currie. With international criticism muted, expect more of the same.

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was detained Sunday at Beijing airport. He’s been a thorn in the side of the authorities for a while, so why would he have been arrested now?

This is part of a broader crackdown, and I think it’s the typical ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ tactic that the Chinese government uses. They are rounding up lots of prominent people who previously had been harassed, but hadn’t been taken into custody. Or some had been briefly detained, but then quickly let go. So this is part of a broader trend.

So is Ai’s detention likely to be one of these detain and release scenarios or do you think the authorities might be planning to press charges?

As you say, they’ve had their eye on him for a while. But I think that the co-ordinated raid on his studio, the detention of his assistant, the seizure of equipment – this looks like part of a serious investigation. And I think there are some very worrying signs about the way he was taken into custody and about what has happened since. The fact that he hasn’t been allowed to contact his family and that his lawyer hasn’t been allowed to see him all point to a secretive investigation that’s very serious.

You mention this is part of broader crackdown. Is it connected to worries about the kind of unrest seen in the Arab world spreading to China, or does this crackdown predate that?

Certainly there has been a surge in detentions over the past two months, since the call went out for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China. There has been a massive uptick in the number of detentions of lawyers, bloggers, and dissidents and particularly with some prominent cases such as Ai Weiwei.

But I think going back further, although it has been more intense in the past two months, I think it has been part of a broader crackdown that started in the period before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which was then followed by a post-Olympics tightening – which included the detention of Liu Xiaobo. When someone speaks out calling for political reform that they feel threatens one-party rule, such as with Charter 08, the authorities tend to freak out and clamp down. So in late 2008, when Charter 08 was published, there was a surge in detentions. And since Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s been another surge in detentions.

So in some sense, these things are event driven in terms of the detention of certain groups of people. But they are also part of a continuum, with the Communist Party unable to manage dissent in a way that isn’t coercive. It’s part of a continuum of the Party’s insecurity on a certain level about its domestic legitimacy. There’s an absolute obsession with stability within the Party, and it sees the detention of people like Liu Xiaobo and Ai Weiwei as critical to maintaining its vision of stability.

How do you think the crackdown is likely to be viewed within China?

I think the party is very skilful at hiding what it’s doing from the Chinese people. Most Chinese people will be happily be diverted with other pursuits and they don’t know what they are missing because they don’t really care so much – they are more interested in going online to chat with friends, to find out what the weather will be, stuff like that. So they aren’t really familiar with what’s going on with dissidents, and the government does a good job of shielding them from it.

That said, as the government goes up the pecking order to higher profile people, to people that have non-political lives like Ai Weiwei  and Yang Hengjun, a novelist who is very popular with people who don’t care about politics, then they are going to start to trigger a broader awareness. I think we’re seeing some of that if you look at the micro-blogging sites where the censors are having a really hard time keeping up with the people on Baidu and some micro-blogging sites. Users are being very clever about talking about Ai Weiwei, for example, by not using his name, or using homonyms to trick the censors. And because of the speed and profusion of these micro-blogging sites, it’s much harder for the censors to control them the way they can with search engine blocking.

So, the authorities are struggling on one level to control the information flow – it’s getting problematic for them. That’s why you see a typical tactic being used now, which is where they’ll first try to clamp down and limit information. And then they’ll put out their own version of events. They did that with Ai Weiwei in a Global Times piece today that came out in Chinese and English. It was crazy sounding – I can’t think of a milder word for it. It was a rant about how the law will not protect people like Ai Weiwei, because he’s disruptive to Chinese society and Chinese society won’t stand this. It’s chilling that this is the first public, government authorized comment on the case. This publication has a very nationalist reputation, and I think it’s very telling that they chose it to put the first messaging on this case out using it and not the Foreign Ministry, for example, or The People’s Daily. It’s a very worrying sign because of what it says about who is pulling the levers and who is making the decisions on what is a threat to stability.

How do you expect the crackdown to play out this year? Will there be more of the same?

I think we should expect to see more of the same. I think that although the Chinese government is feeling insecure at home, the West and their partners outside of China have given them a high degree of confidence that they can act this way without suffering consequences. There have been some statements from governments, but people’s attention is focused elsewhere right now. This isn’t getting much attention from US policymakers, for example. In fact, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Kurt Campbell is going to be in Beijing tomorrow talking about the strategic and economic dialogue. I’m sure he’ll bring this issue up, but it won’t be the centrepiece of his discussion with his Chinese counterpart.

So the Party is making a calculation here. This is all about regime survival and they’ve clearly made a decision that the survival of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is rooted in this kind of approach to people who they consider outside the line. And they have a complementary strategy of trying to buy off the kind of mass groups that could cause a problem for them, whether it’s pushing social services out to certain communities, or helping the military by raising their salaries. They have a plan for heading off mass unrest with large, potentially discontented groups in society, while focusing on what they see as a small group of radical people. They consider this group to be outside the bounds of Chinese society and believe that nobody in China, and not enough people outside of China, will care what happens to them.

Kelley Currie is a Senior Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia. Prior to joining Project 2049, Ms. Currie was a Special Assistant to the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs and Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues at the US Department of State.