The Forbidden Citizen: Why 2012 will be a very bad year to be a Chinese dissident- and what America can do about it.
It’s only been a month, and 2012 is already looking bleak for the notion that peaceful criticism can exist within China. In January, a court in the central Chinese city of Wuhan sentenced writer Li Tie to 10 years on charges of subversion of state power, and prosecutors in Hangzhou charged poet Zhu Yufu with subversion for penning a poem about political reform. Prominent dissident Yu Jie, who fled China in January, explained at a press conference in Washington how Beijing policemen beat him for hours and burned him with cigarettes. In late December, a Sichuan court sentenced pro-democracy activist Chen Wei to nine years for subversion; a few days later a court in Guizhou gave government critic Chen Xi ten years on the same charge. Such harsh sentences, meted out to people who had merely exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression, send an unambiguous warning to critics of the Chinese government to keep silent.
China’s ruling Communist Party has been treating dissidents with an increasingly heavy hand over the past few years. Fearing a “Jasmine Revolution” in the wake of the Arab Spring last year, the government shifted its strategy from just detaining critics to disappearing them. The internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei was arrested on April 3 and held in an undisclosed location until June 22. In 2009, China sentenced Liu Xiaobo, one of the chief architects of the Charter ‘08 democracy appeal, to 11 years in prison. When the Nobel committee awarded Liu the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China started a campaign of intimidation by arresting, detaining, and intimidating other signatories, and by placing Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest despite the lack of a legal basis for doing so. And 2009 also saw the government unleash harsh repression in response to unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Contrary to the claims of the International Olympic Committee, whose president, Jacques Rogge, said that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would improve the Chinese human rights situation, the legacy appears to be the ascendance of the security state, a massive project of surveillance and censorship set in motion to quell any signs of protest around the games — and which continues unabated to this day.
But 2012 will likely be worse. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formally heads into its orchestrated leadership transition in which power will likely transfer from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, it will place a higher-than-normal premium on trying to maintain the façade of a “harmonious society.” Concurrently, it faces unprecedented social unrest and demands for justice and accountability coming from all regions and across socioeconomic groups. Because the CCP remains profoundly hostile to free expression and refuses to loosen its tentacled grip on the legal system, it is left pursuing a strategy of “social management” that provides only piecemeal relief — and may well fuel even greater outrage.