The trial today of a Chinese internet activist charged with ‘creating a disturbance’ highlights the growing rupture between a government determined to crack down on dissent, and a public apparently increasingly determined to express its views.
Wang Lihong could be sentenced to up to five years in prison after being detained in March as part of a broad crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists that included the detention of renowned artist Ai Weiwei. Wang’s case, which was heard in just a few hours in Beijing today and is being seen by many as a warning to other dissidents, is tied to a protest outside of a court in Fuzhou last year. There, Wang openly supported three bloggers accused of slander after they tried to help an illiterate woman pressure the authorities to reinvestigate her daughter’s death.
Representatives from the EU and a number of embassies turned up to hear the case, but reportedly weren’t allowed to observe proceedings, which Wang’s lawyers have anyway suggested were unfair. The judge, according to Han Yicun, one of Wang’s lawyers, obstructed the defence by interrupting both him and Wang on a number of occasions.
Wang also likely earned the ire of the authorities after joining with a number of activists in openly celebrating the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo last year. ‘I think the most important thing is that every person learns how to be their own citizen, and not become someone else's subordinate,’ Wang was quoted as telling AP.
As The Economist notes in an interesting piece today, Ai has begun to test the limits of the conditions set by authorities for his release in June.
‘First it was a toe dipped back into online social-networking, a medium he had used often to air his grievances before he was…held incommunicado in a padded cell for 81 days and intimidated into silence. It began with a Google+ account he opened in late July, on which he declared himself, in a sarcastic reference to police allegations, “a suspected pornography enthusiast and tax evader”. Then on August 7 he returned to Twitter, to which he had posted tens of thousands of messages before he was taken. This week he has twittered furiously about the authorities’ treatment of other Chinese activists.’
The crackdown on dissent likely stems in large part from fears among China’s leaders that the country could see the kinds of democracy protests that tore through parts of the Arab world earlier this year. Indeed, there were calls in February for China’s own Jasmine Revolution, calls that the authorities were quick to stamp out with significant shows of force at locations where members of the public were urged to gather to show their support for democracy.
Such heavy handedness is a risky game to play, as Kelley Currie of Project 2049 told me. ‘The perception is growing—fed by an increasing number of arrests and harsh treatment of dissidents, lawyers and other activists—that the party-state is intensifying coercion to deal with dissenting voices it perceives as threatening to its rule,’ she said.
‘But it’s doing so in a wired world: urban areas of China have a high level of Internet and mobile connectivity, and China is an increasingly wired economy with a citizenry that’s able to publicize local events on a national level at a speed previously unimagined. The increasing willingness—and ability—of Chinese citizens to publicly spoof and mock their leaders demonstrates a palpable diminution of fear. It’s something that should alarm those leaders.’
It’s a point taken up by Pacific Forum CSIS fellow Yang Yi, who argues today that the proliferation of micro-blogging, for example, gives younger generations an alternative source of news, one that is increasingly conflicting with the official line.
‘The proliferation of new media and new tools such as smartphones means every citizen has a chance to be a journalist…(and) the tighter the government turns the screws on traditional media, the more it drives a wedge between itself and its citizens.’