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Don’t push people to extremes

Even moderate critics have become targets of the Chinese crackdown

Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei
  • Patrick Poon, Hong Kong
  • China
  • April 8, 2011
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The Chinese government has shocked the world again by detaining internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei and launching a severe crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists. It seems that the Chinese government does not care about international criticism of its human rights record as it becomes more confident with its economic influence in the international arena.

Ai Weiwei, like many other critics, in fact rejected the idea of a “jasmine revolution” when he started, saying that there wasn’t enough awareness on human rights protection and democracy among Chinese people.

However, he has still become a target of the crackdown since the Chinese government is paranoid over his influence and popularity on the Internet, while his Twitter has more than 76,000 followers. Ai Weiwei, who was a co-designer of the National Stadium (colloquially known as the Bird’s Nest) for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, is famous for his making fun of government wrongdoings through his artwork and his blog and micro blog.

It is thus particularly worrying that the Chinese government cannot even tolerate such humorous expression. Ai Weiwei’s detention once again shows that the Chinese government does not care about following its own laws as they resort to using the official media to discredit him by announcing that he is under investigation for “economic crimes,” while his family were not notified within 48 hours of his detention as is required by China’s Criminal Procedure Law.

Even moderate critics have also become targets of the crackdown, which appears related to the Chinese government’s fear of anonymous online calls for a “jasmine revolution” – which were merely appeals for people to stroll by and smile in certain venues every Sunday afternoon – demanding improvements in the human rights situation and political reform in late February 2011.

It seems that the Chinese government was worried that it might snowball into action out of their control, although no people, including those calling for the release of prominent dissidents, believed that the actions would turn into dramatic events such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

According to Amnesty International, more than 100 people, including famous dissidents and unknown online citizens, have been detained, subjected to monitoring and intimidation by the security forces, or have gone missing since late February.

When President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao came to power in 2003, many people hoped that they would be more open in their policies and would allow more space for people to express their views. On the surface, the Chinese government tried to look good in front of the international community by introducing human rights stipulations in its constitution in 2004 and introduced the so-called “2009-2010 Human Rights Action Plan” immediately after holding the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

But nothing in the action plan has been put into practice. The Chinese government is getting more skillful in making these gestures to divert international criticism. Indeed, one can’t help worrying whether the new leadership, which will take the helm in 2012, will take an even more heavy-handed approach against dissidents.

Different from the dissidents of the pro-democracy movement in 1989, who made an abstract call for democracy, most of the Chinese dissidents nowadays are making concrete calls for improvements in human rights.

Farmers who lost their land because of illegal land grabs and parents of toxic milk-powder victims, like Zhao Lianhai - who was sentenced to 2.5 years for “inciting social disorder” and later released on medical parole - originally tried to defend their rights by using lawyers to go through the legal procedures, but their lawsuits for compensation were blocked by the courts without any reason.

They had no choice but to resort to petitions. But then, they were often arrested and accused of “inciting social disorder” or other baseless offences. What is more alarming is that human rights lawyers who provided legal assistance to them have also become targets in the crackdown.

If people cannot resolve their grievances by legal means, they will be pushed to apply more extreme measures. When ordinary citizens are forced to become activists, it will definitely create more unrest in the country. It won’t help to ease social tension even though the Chinese government plans to spend 624.4 billion yuan (US$95 billion) this year on “maintaining stability.”

Patrick Poon is a Committee Member of  the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Diocese, Executive Secretary of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group and Vice-president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.

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