Ai Weiwei

A bitter blow for free speech on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 February, 2010, 12:00am

A court in Chengdu has jailed mainland activist Tan Zuoren for five years for subversion of the state. The elephant in the courtroom was the memory of more than 5,000 schoolchildren who died in the Sichuan earthquake disaster.

Tan was not charged over the issue that aroused official hostility in Sichuan - his refusal to abandon an investigation of the role of official corruption and incompetence in the collapse of shoddily built schools. Ironically, he was charged in connection with another national tragedy - e-mailed comments about the 20th anniversary of the June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Reference to this incident is usually taboo. In this case it has served to maintain a local taboo on any discussion of why schools collapsed as other buildings remained standing.

Tan's arrest derailed his plans to issue an independent report on the disproportionate damage to schools. There is little doubt, as his lawyer, his wife, supporters and human rights campaigners are convinced, that concern about what it might contain was the catalyst for his detention. Although his investigation was not mentioned in court, the indictment before his trial in August last year said he had seriously damaged the image of the Communist Party and the government in statements after the quake. But so did the National Audit Office. Reporting last year that more than 50 ministries and agencies were linked to the misappropriation of 30 billion yuan (HK$34 billion) in 2007, it said embezzlement by rural officials of funds for school construction was rife, forcing schools to run on 55 per cent of their budgets.

The sensitivity of Sichuan officials to the prospect of having Tan identify their administration with such greed in the aftermath of the quake is understandable. After all, top state leaders have often acknowledged that official corruption is rampant, and nominated the eradication of it as a prerequisite for maintaining the political legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

But just as China cannot truly move on from the shadow cast by June 4 until it confronts the issue, it cannot bring closure to thousands of parents, many of whom lost an only child, until it gets to the bottom of the 'tofu' schools scandal and holds the responsible officials accountable for any malpractice.

Instead, parents were offered compensation in return for keeping quiet, and campaigners, among them Beijing artist and activist Ai Weiwei, pressured to drop the collection of data about children killed. Tan's trial in August and the sentencing made a mockery of the accusation that he had damaged the image of the party and the government with statements about the quake. The authorities and police hurt it themselves by refusing to allow the defence to call witnesses or show supporting video evidence, beating up Ai before he was due to appear as a witness, and barring the parents of quake victims from court. At both the trial and sentencing, Hong Kong media representatives were physically intimidated.

Tan's case is not to be compared with that of Liu Xiaobo, the dissident jailed for 11 years recently over online essays calling for civil rights and multiparty elections, either in terms of the challenge to authority or the international attention it will attract. But Ai is right to describe it as an even more egregious example of the intolerance of free speech. It is a shabby postscript to the acclaim China earned for the speed and scale of earthquake rescue and relief and the freedom it allowed the world media to cover the disaster.