Are China's leaders cleaning up or cracking down?
People who stand up for their beliefs are dealt with as harshly as ever
In April 2009 Dr Fan Yafeng was sacked from his job as a legal researcher at a prestigious think tank, China Academy of Social Sciences.
It’s not that he was no good at his job – to help the country’s government formulate its constitutional and religious policy. Rather, it was that he was an openly proselytising Christian, a member of a Protestant house church and signatory of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for fundamental changes in China including an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of one-party rule.
Fan was sanguine about this turn of events when I met with him a few weeks later. Sadly his optimism was misplaced. In December 2010 he was detained by police and eventually released into “house arrest”. Since then none of his friends have been allowed to speak to him, and he has no telephone or internet access.
Fan was a victim of the increasingly tough “social stability” policies of China’s Communist Party, instituted under past leader Hu Jintao – who cut his teeth quelling riots in Tibet.
Since Hu was replaced in 2012 by Xi Jinping, a man feted around the world as an economic reformer, the environment for independent-minded Chinese keen to improve their country has actually deteriorated.
In almost three years Fan has not been charged with any crimes, yet he is treated like a criminal, stripped of any right to associate or move freely. He remains trapped by the state, in a particular form of hell.
Fan is but one example of countless people across the country who have the temerity to stand up for their beliefs. They are under one of many forms of house arrest, Fan’s being one of the most severe, held in custody for months and sometimes years on end, or put on trial in a system where rule of law is a joke and secretive Party committees tell judges how to act.
When Xi ascended to the country’s top job, Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, he promised to end the endemic corruption that he and his predecessors have said is the biggest threat to the Party’s future.
Xi also cut the number of people in the very top echelon of leadership, the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee, from nine to seven, in the process removing the Party’s top security chief.
At the time, these moves were seen as encouraging and Xi, together with Wang Qishan, a widely respected Politburo member who was named chief of the Party’s Central Discipline Committee, has waged an ongoing battle against corruption inside the party.
Extravagant gifts and banquets have been banned and – living up to his promise to get “tigers” or senior officials, as well as “flies” or junior cadres – many senior officials have been arrested.
Yet the campaign against Party corruption is increasingly seen as Xi crushing dissent to his rule inside the Party. Among those arrested is former Politburo Standing Committee member and security chief Zhou Yongkang, along with many of his inner circle, most of whom were senior executives in State Owned Enterprises in the energy sector, removing one clique presumably to be replaced by another.
Zhou was close to Bo Xilai, a disgraced and jailed former Politburo member, leadership aspirant and one-time colleague of Xi’s.
Just how truly self-serving and hypocritical Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has quickly become is writ large in the case of Dr Xu Zhiyong, a “rights defence” lawyer, known in Chinese as weiquan, who is now serving a four-year jail sentence for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”.
I met Xu, a sharp minded, friendly young lawyer with a PhD in law from Beijing University, in 2009 only days before his previous arrest on dubious tax evasion charges directed at the organization he then ran, the Open Constitution Initiative. Despite being bundled into a car after a knock at his door at 5pm on July 29, 2009 and kept in detention for almost a month, Xu was undeterred.
After admitting to the tax charges he was released – some reports claim after pressure from US President Barack Obama during his visit to China – and he began working away on a bigger project, the New Citizens Movement, that he founded in 2012.
Of his trial Professor Jerry Cohen, one of the world’s experts on the Chinese legal system, said this in the South China Morning Post on January 29:
“Was Xu's trial ‘in accordance with law’? Certainly not. In many respects, it violated the ‘law’ – but not the practice – of China. Indeed, it made a mockery of the recent speeches by President Xi Jinping and leaders of the Supreme People's Court emphasizing the need to prevent further wrongful convictions by requiring verification of evidence in open, fair court hearings.”
While Xu is perhaps the most high profile case of the increasingly rough justice meted out to those the Party fear, he is far from alone. Scores of people have been rounded up under Xi and there is now no doubt that censorship has been ramped up and “dissent” is being crushed ever more ruthlessly from every angle.
There is a method to the madness of the Chinese “justice” system. Organizations with strong and often opaque networks that run across provincial and social/economic lines, with networks that may be co-opted for political purposes, reduce the CCP to a state of paranoia.
This is why religious organizations and those who promote them like Dr Fan continue to be targeted. The wildly popular, and ultimately too well organized, quasi-religious Falun Gong with their penchant for mass meetings, was another to fall foul of the CCPs fears.
Xi and the Party’s aim in targeting people like Fan and Xu is not a Maoist-style pogrom, it’s just the latest in a long line of bullying tactics meant to enforce the primacy of the Party and increasingly, the powerful families – such as his own – whose interests are now intertwined with the organization. The age-old mix of money, power and politics have lead many observers to describe China as a “mafia state”.
In a new book, exiled Chinese writer Yu Jie has taken this to its logical conclusion. The man who ridiculed former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in his 2010 book Wen Jiabao – China’s Greatest Actor has turned his pen to the current leader in a new book Godfather of China, Xi Jinping.
The New York Times recently reported that one Hong Kong publisher, Yiu Mantin, was arrested while on a visit to the mainland late last year and subsequently declined to be involved in printing Yu’s book in the supposedly independent city, while a second has abandoned plans to publish after threatening phone calls.
You get the idea.
Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator
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