Pen is subject to the sword
'You either abandon your ideals, or you risk being arrested,' a mainland dissident writer said this month.
'I've not written for nearly a year, I daren't take media interviews any more, I can't meet with other writers and I've given up taking part in political activities,' said the writer, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The writer, a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, of which jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo was president, said the stepping up of harassment of dissident writers amid an increasingly tense political atmosphere during the past year has intimidated him into giving up writing.
He is just one of many dissident writers who say that they have been given fresh warnings in recent weeks to refrain from writing essays on politically sensitive topics.
Many say they were also warned that surveillance of them would be escalated in the coming year, before the leadership reshuffle expected at the 18th Communist Party congress this autumn, with the authorities feeling increasingly jittery about simmering social discontent.
A sense of fear is pervading literary circles, some writers say, after a recent spate of heavy jail terms handed out to writers and activists.
Dissident writer Li Tie was jailed for 10 years for 'subversion of state power' last month. In December, Chen Wei was sentenced to nine years and Chen Xi to 10 years for 'inciting subversion'.
And activist Zhu Yufu, a co-founder of the banned China Democracy Party, was sentenced on Friday to seven years' jail, also on subversion charges, for a poem he wrote that purportedly incited protests in China during the spring 'jasmine revolutions' in the Arab world last year. Unnerved by online calls for people to gather in public places to demand democracy, police detained scores of activists, dissidents and lawyers, some for several months.
'The sense of the danger of being jailed is now very real,' the writer said. 'I don't have a choice but to take a low profile; I have a wife and a child to take care of.'
In recent months, several intellectuals say the oppressive atmosphere has driven them abroad.
Poet Liao Yiwu, many of whose works are banned on the mainland, fled to Germany last summer, saying he needed a free environment to write.
Yu Jie, a Christian dissident writer, fled the country with his wife and three-year-old son last month, saying police had tortured him for writing a book, published in 2010, accusing Premier Wen Jiabao of hypocrisy over democratic values.
'I believe this is the worst time for writers since 1989 [the Tiananmen crackdown]. We feel our lives are being threatened, and we have no freedom to write,' Yu said from the United States. He said dozens of writers, activists and rights lawyers had also been tortured during the past year but dared not speak up.
Veteran journalist Gao Yu describes the outlook for the coming year as 'a harsh winter for freedom of speech'. Gao, who spent a total of seven years in jail for her political writings, was warned last month by police about an essay she wrote on an overseas website that was critical of President Hu Jintao. She was ordered to refrain from commenting on the leadership before the party congress after the recent unrest in Wukan village in Guangdong.
Gao says official suppression of writers is reaching a new height before the leadership reshuffle as the authorities try to keep a lid on social discontent.
There were more than 180,000 'mass incidents' - such as demonstrations and riots - in 2010, nearly treble the number 10 years earlier, according to an estimate by Tsinghua University academic Sun Liping.
Gao said official crackdowns on dissent intensified before the Olympic Games in 2008 and again after Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2010 - an act denounced by Beijing as a Western conspiracy to undermine China.
Control tightened again in spring last year, when messages appeared online urging people to participate in the 'jasmine' rallies in mainland cities, she said.
'This year, it's tightening across the board ... and there seems to be no inhibition [on the part of the authorities] against using violence to maintain stability and to prevent street protests,' she said.
Other writers have reported more frequent harassment from the authorities in the form of having their phones tapped, being followed, having their microblogs closed or being invited for 'tea' - a euphemism used by police when delivering warnings.
Dissidents and activists said things they used to take for granted, such as informal discussion forums or even dinner gatherings, have now become impossible.
Jiao Guobiao, a former Peking University journalism professor fired in 2005 after he denounced the party's curbing of the freedom of speech, said many writers like him have no choice but to take a low profile. Police recently told him to stay away from commenting on politically sensitive topics, he said.
'Basically, you have no choice but to co-operate with them, otherwise you would be in a lot of trouble,' said Jiao, who was barred by police from leaving home for more than 40 days last year and had to report his movements for more than 200 days.
The Ministry of Public Security did not respond to requests for comment.
Jean-Philippe Beja, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, said increased tension is to be expected before a leadership succession, particularly in the absence of the appointment of a political heir by a charismatic leader.
Hu was elevated to the top leadership with the blessing of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and became a vice-president in March 1998, just over a year after Deng's death, but his heir apparent, Xi Jinping, enjoys no such backing from a political strongman.
'The struggle is very strong. Different groups are jockeying for power, and things have not been completely set,' Beja said. 'The hardening will be developing in months to come.'
Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the recent harsh sentences and the fleeing of writers abroad were in line with a slew of official measures that point to a consistent lack of improvement in the human rights situation on the mainland.
'The pressure on writers is part of the efforts to redefine the limits of expression,' he said, citing other measures, such as a new rule in Beijing forcing microblog users to register with their real names and a proposed law that would legalise secret detentions of suspects accused of endangering state security without charge for up to six months.
'This is essentially part of the anxiety towards popular protests.'
Yu, who said the police beatings had left him no choice but to flee, believes the persecution of liberal intellectuals will lessen the chance of the country having a peaceful transition to democracy - something they had always hoped for.
'This makes the possibility of a violent conflict much more likely - and this worries us,' he said.
Phelim Kine, also a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the timing of the heavy sentencing of the writers 'illustrates the government's efforts to breed fear and sow silence among China's beleaguered community of human rights defenders and civil society activists'.
Amount, in yuan, that China spent on internal security in 2010 - more than the 534 billion yuan it spent on national defence