Tiananmen Square crackdown

Beijing plays on people’s fear to stop dissent as June 4 nears

Chang Ping says Beijing not only has set out to silence its critics as June 4 nears, but it tries to keep things quiet by exploiting other people's worry for the detainees' safety

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 May, 2014, 9:09pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 May, 2014, 1:39am

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Chinese government has gone on the offensive. Citing various absurd reasons, it has detained a large number of people who have either criticised the government in the past or whom authorities believe may do so. They include the respected human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang , retired academic Xu Youyu and political activist Hu Shigen .

Their arrests have sparked international concern. Many from around the world - from international organisations and well-known academics to ordinary people - have raised their voice in protest.

By contrast, the detainees' family members have largely kept quiet and avoided talking to the media. Some of them might simply not want to be in the news, but their bigger worry is angering the government; by speaking out, they fear they will provoke harsher treatment of their loved ones in retaliation.

Some family members were directly warned by the government not to accept interview requests from foreign media (the local media would not dare to interview them), and not to express their views on the internet. Their phones are likely to have been bugged, and secret police shadow them wherever they go.

I understand their difficulties. They know well that their loved ones did not break the law, but were jailed for speaking out on sensitive issues or for challenging the authority of the government. In China then as now, an emperor's displeasure is cause for arresting someone; his rage is reason enough to punish that person.

I'm reminded of a heated argument I witnessed in Chengdu in 2010. Activist Tan Zuoren had just been sentenced to five years in jail for "inciting subversion of state power" after he exposed the shoddy construction of school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and published an online article on the June 4 movement.

A woman who claimed to be a good friend of Tan's laid into his lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, for contributing to his heavy sentence by accepting foreign media interviews despite a government warning not to do so, for the selfish reason of boosting Pu's own profile. She also blamed Pu for angering the Sichuan authorities by taking part in the production of dissident artist Ai Weiwei's film, Disturbing the Peace (or Laoma Tihua in Chinese), which documented police abuse there.

Some people defended Pu, pointing out that Tan himself had made it his life's work to expose government misdeeds and speak up against any "black-box operations". If he had wanted to protect himself and was willing to play nice with the government, he would not have done the things he did.

Nevertheless, the woman and her supporters countered, even if Tan had been willing to sacrifice himself, his lawyer, friends and family should have protected him, even if they had to suffer the humiliation of being called government sympathisers.

Today, Pu himself is in trouble, and his case brings up the same issue, the same debate. This exposes the hypocrisy of China's rule of law. So, merely disclosing details of the case and voicing protest can lead to a heavier sentence? Even if this fear was based on mere innuendos and empty threats, such actions are against the law. This shows the Chinese government does not follow the law, but runs the country like a triad boss.

I recently read some news in the official media that was so ridiculous I didn't know whether to laugh or cry: the Guangdong Commission for Discipline Inspection has banned party cadres from addressing their supervisors as lao ban (boss) or lao da (gang leader), and from calling their subordinates ge men (buddy) or xiong di (bro). Such gangland talk is commonly heard in government offices - a true reflection of the reality of Chinese politics, it would seem.

Many people won't agree with this characterisation: they say likening the government to gangsters in fact insults the gangsters, because Chinese officials often resort to tactics even the triads would find beneath them. For example, veteran journalist Gao Yu disappeared for nearly two weeks before appearing on CCTV news "confessing" that she had broken the law by leaking state secrets. The government said she had been "detained according to law". A few days later, when her relatives and lawyer went to the detention centre to see her, they were told there was "no such person" there.

The family members of those who have been wrongfully detained might hope government officials would at least play by triad rules, but they would be wrong. In fact, many little-known dissidents, protesters and petitioners have suffered from even more brutal suppression.

In Tan's case, there is no direct evidence showing that international opprobrium led the government to impose a heavier sentence on him. But there have been countless examples where the pressure of international opinion led to the release of some dissidents.

The Chinese government has a free hand at home to crack down on dissent. As the Chinese economy grows to lead the world, its new generation of leaders might like to pretend they don't care about global opinion but - for now at least - that is not the case.

How things play out in future will affect not just China but the whole world.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese