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Major crackdown ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

Scores are being rounded up before 25th anniversary

Major crackdown ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

Michael Sainsbury, Bangkok, Thailand

May 22, 2014

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Tiananmen Square is an impressive space, surrounded by symbols of both ancient and modern China. To the north is the Forbidden City, to the west the Great Hall of the People, to the east the Chinese Museum, and to the south a vestige of the magnificent wall that once protected Beijing, Qianmen Gate.

After decades of bloody upheaval — from the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty through the Warlord period, to the Japanese invasion, then WWII, and finally civil war with the Kuomintang — on Oct 1, 1949 a victorious and popular Chinese Communist Party (CCP), led by Mao Zedong, declared the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square. This vast open space is truly the historical and political heart of the nation. 

Then, almost 40 years after the founding of modern China, Tiananmen Square became the scene of sit-in protests demanding political reform, which were sparked by the death of reformist ex-premier Hu Yaobang. Irked by the protesters' refusal to disperse, on June 4 Deng Xiaoping sent in the (until then aptly-named) People’s Liberation Army to clear the square. With tanks and heavily armed infantry the PLA set upon the crowd, murdering hundreds of people and injuring thousands more.

Just over a decade earlier, in 1978, Deng Xiaoping had begun to roll out economic reforms that would eventually lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, providing education and employment. Tragically the protesters mistook those economic reforms for political development and paid the price. 

The weeks before June 4 — liu si as it is widely known in China — sees an annual round-up of troublemakers, activists, dissenters, lawyers, writers, NGO officials and such. All are judged guilty of the heinous crime of agitating for a fairer, more inclusive, and less brutal system governed by laws rather than the Party fiat.

When asked, many younger Chinese I met when I lived in Beijing would say they knew that something bad had happened at Tiananmen Square but were not sure of the details. It's one of the more egregious examples of the Chinese government’s policy of thought control, lying to its citizens through the state-run propaganda machine, day in and year out, either by commission or omission.

Leading dissidents and activists have resigned themselves to being put under some form of house arrest, asked to leave Beijing or even detained for periods of time. The crackdown in Tiananmen Square is one of a number of what the Chinese like to call “sensitive periods”, which also includes the country’s National Day, on October 1.

As this year is the 25th anniversary of 6-4, the round up has reached a new peak and has been far more severe than during the 20th anniversary. It’s been more brutal, and also started much earlier. Many more individuals have been caught in the net. Hundreds — if not thousands — of people have had their homes ransacked by police and expensive, often job-critical equipment like microphones and computers confiscated. But it’s not just about June 4 this year but rather a part of the broader ongoing crackdown that has occurred under Xi Jinping.

The most prominent victim thus far has been Pu Zhiqiang, a protest leader at Tiananmen who earned his history degree in 1986 and then spent years working as a laborer before earning his law degree in 1991. Pu was arrested earlier this month along with a number of others after attending a meeting to talk about June 4. He has been charged with “picking quarrels and making disputes” — the new criminal offense sweeping China.

Like many "weiquan", or rights lawyers, in China he treads a delicate line with a successful commercial practice to counter his work on behalf of individuals who the Party effectively see as enemies of the state. He represented artist Ai Weiwei in a trumped-up tax avoidance case in 2011. Along with Mo Shaoping, the lawyer who represented jailed Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo — a good friend of Pu’s — he is the best known and most outspoken of the weiquan. The new regime has taken a particularly heavy stick to these lawyers.

There’s a niggling concern perhaps that the Party is all too aware that it was lawyers who proved the intellectual ballast for the quiet revolution in Taiwan under Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of the island state’s original dictator Chiang Kai-shek.

Well-known journalist Gao Yu also disappeared for a period before appearing on television, face blurred out, confessing to “crimes”. Former South China Morning Post journalist Vivian Wu Wei, a mainlander, is also now missing.

Last week two lawyers were caught in the “quarrels” trap: Guangzhou-based Tang Jingling, who has represented the victims of state-sanctioned land grabs, counterfeit vaccinations and petitioners protesting corruption, was accused of "starting quarrels and provoking disputes”. Like the raid on Pu, police had searched Tang's home and confiscated computers, cell phones and other electronics, according to a police document Liu Xiaobo showed to Reuters. Liu said neither he nor relatives had been able to meet with Tang.

Another weiquan, Liu Shihui, was taken into custody during the past week and is being held at a detention center in Shanghai. Liu was giving advice to a group of petitioners when police detained him.

For years now savvy Chinese netizens have referred to June 4 as “May 35” to confuse cyber censors who monitor the country’s internet sites looking to delete inappropriate comments. Some even get a fateful knock on the door from not-so-friendly secret police, which means they end up on a list of undesirables. Forever.

For a place that is something of a Mecca for China’s hundreds of millions of domestic tourists as well as international visitors, Tiananmen Square has been stripped of its significance as a symbol of pro-democracy activism and oppression.

The often brutal silencing of people who want to remember this is just part of the cancer that is rotting the CCP slowly, but surely, from the inside. 

Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator.

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