Features | Society | East Asia

Will China Dragon Bite in 2012?

Last year was a tough one for Chinese dissidents. With the Communist Party keen for stability as the leadership transition unfolds, 2012 could well be worse.

By Phelim Kine for

Strike hard and take prisoners. That’s the Chinese government’s message on how it will respond to perceived dissent in this Dragon year of 2012.

Just ask the writers Chen Xi, Chen Wei, and Li Tie. Chen Wei received a nine year prison term on December 23 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” for on-line government criticism. Three days later, a Guiyang court handed down a 10-year sentence on the same charge to Chen Xi, for similar on-line criticism of China’s one-party rule. Then, on January 18 of this year, a Wuhan court sentenced Li Tie to a 10 year prison term for “subversion of state power” for writings that included reference to the official taboo topic of the June 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Other victims of the Chinese government’s spate of politically motivated court rulings include the disappeared human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng. On December 16, a Beijing court abruptly withdrew Gao’s grant of probation and ordered him to serve the entirety of a three-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” handed down on December 22, 2006. The court justified its decision on the basis that Gao had “seriously violated probation rules” despite the fact that he had been the victim of an apparent enforced disappearance – and thus in police custody – since April 2010. The Chinese government also targeted the disabled housing rights activist Ni Yulan and her husband Dong Jiqing. The couple faced trial on December 29 on spurious charges of “creating a disturbance” and “fraud” and currently awaits sentencing. And on January 18, police charged veteran human rights activist Zhu Yufu with “inciting subversion of state power” for writings including a poem that police interpreted as a call for popular unrest against one-party rule.

These cases represent more than the Chinese government’s well-documented contempt for freedom of expression explicitly guaranteed in Article 35 of the Constitution. They are also clear efforts to breed fear and sow silence among China’s beleaguered community of human rights defenders and civil society activists. The aim: to ensure that the 12-month senior Communist Party leadership transition this year proceeds without public challenges to the Party’s 61-year monopoly on power. China’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are preparing to step aside for a new generation of leaders, widely touted to be Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, in a secretive political succession that won’t be complete until in March 2013.

The Chinese government has reason to be nervous about its political legitimacy. It has delivered some impressive economic growth and boosted living standards at the price of an authoritarian one-party state which denies most citizens’ basic rights and freedoms and victimizes those who protest such abuses. It imposes sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association, and religion; openly rejects judicial independence and press freedom; and arbitrarily restricts and suppresses human rights defenders and organizations, often through extra-judicial measures. Despite that repression, Chinese citizens are increasingly aware of their rights and more vocal when they’re denied. By the government’s own numbers, more than 100,000 “mass incidents” or protests are estimated to occur annually in China, and the Chinese government now budgets more funds for “social stability maintenance” to contain outbreaks of popular discontent than for national defense.

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But while repression is nothing new in China, the government’s intolerance toward perceived dissent has grown since the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Its victims include imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion” over his role in drafting Charter ’08, an online petition advocating peaceful political change in China. His wife, Liu Xia, who hasn’t been charged with any crime, is believed to be under house arrest to prevent her from campaigning on her husband’s behalf. In February 2011, she said in a brief online exchange that she and her family were like “hostages” and that she felt “miserable.”

Such repression is likely to only worsen in 2012 due to lingering official unease about the “Arab spring” and the vulnerabilities it exposed in previously rock-solid authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In response, beginning in February 2011, Chinese security agencies rounded up dozens of the country’s most outspoken critics, including the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, and “disappeared” them for weeks outside of any legal protection and judicial procedure. Upon their release, several of those individuals reported being subjected to forced sleep deprivation, interrogations, and threats while in custody.

To make matters worse, the Chinese government is pushing through a provision in China’s draft criminal procedure law to effectively legalize such disappearances, which remain a serious crime in international law. The draft law will allow police to detain suspects in cases involving endangering state security, terrorism and major corruption for up to six months under "residential surveillance" in a location of the police’s choice without providing any notification to family members of the detainee's whereabouts or alleged offense. With the backdrop of the ongoing leadership transition, instances of enforced disappearances to silence dissent could become even more common in 2012.

That greater willingness of China’s state security agencies to resort to wholly illegal practices speaks to the wider erosion in rule of law in China in recent years, a trend that’s likely to continue in 2012. In China today, repression no longer wears a uniform. That was the lesson learned by the British actor Christian Bale on December 15, when he and a CNN crew were physically blocked from visiting the blind human rights defender Chen Guangcheng outside his home village in Shandong Province. Since Chen’s release from prison on September 9, 2010, on a politically-motivated conviction for “disrupting traffic,” he and his family have been illegally detained in their home and reportedly subjected to vicious beatings for defying their captors. A cordon of aggressive plainclothes thugs who appear to operate at official behest prevented Bale from entering the village and attempted to attack the CNN crew’s cameraman.Bale and his CNN team got off easy – those same thugs have reportedly detained, beaten and subjected to illegal search and seizure many of the dozens of sympathetic Chinese citizens who have tried to visit Chen over the past year.

The government’s overriding obsession with maintaining its monopoly on power make it likely that these abuses will continue under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Foreign governments could help reverse this trend and give support to Chinese who want a more accountable government by more vigorously engaging the government on such violations. Thirty years since the launch of China’s economic reform and opening, a decade after China entered the World Trade Organization, and five years since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the deterioration in respect for human rights and rule of law in China should be of serious concern for all countries seeking long-term, sustainable and mutually-beneficial bilateral relations with China.

For far too long, the international community’s approach to human rights abuses in China has been dominated by behind-closed-doors entreaties at the margins of diplomatic meetings or in bilateral human rights dialogues, which are typically triumphs of diplomatic form over substance. In recent weeks, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights and some foreign governments have expressed more robust criticism in response to some abuses. However, it remains to been whether such engagement can and will be sustained in the face of concerns of foreign governments that such engagement are a threat to improved financial and economic ties with China.

In the longer term, governments truly committed to improving their approach to human rights abuses in China can’t rely on rhetoric alone. Instead, foreign governments, particularly the United States, the E.U. and the U.K., need to make progress on individual human rights cases a real benchmark for engagement with China and make clear that lack of progress will impact bilateral relations. Failure to do so will only ensure that in 2012 and beyond, yet more Chinese citizens will fall victim to their government’s dissent-stifling tactics of fear and intimidation.

Phelim Kine is a senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.