Protest and Repression in China: An Update to ?Interpreting Protest in Modern China?

Protest and Repression in China: An Update to ?Interpreting Protest in Modern China?

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham: Protest and Repression in China

Last fall, I co-wrote an article for Dissent with Jeff Wasserstrom, who like me is a specialist in Chinese history with a strong interest in how the past influences and shapes the present. Called ?Interpreting Protest in Modern China,? it appeared in the magazine?s Winter 2011 issue, just as the story of the Arab Spring began to dominate the global news cycle and shortly before the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Chinese dissent and repression began to unfold.

In our essay, we outlined some of the major trends that we had observed in the Chinese government?s treatment of protests in recent years. While many Americans imagine that China?s leadership engages in a knee-jerk ?repress them all? reaction to any signs of mass organization, Jeff and I argued that the PRC?s leaders actually calibrate their response to the situation at hand and its potential for extending beyond specific groups or locales. A small band of farmers complaining about pollution in the countryside, for example, creates far less concern in Beijing than multiple generations of Tibetans denouncing the government?s policies in the streets of Lhasa. ?In post-Tiananmen China,? we wrote, ?not all protests are created equal.?

This statement is still true. What has changed, however, is the international milieu in which the Chinese government now operates?and due in part to that, the readiness of the authorities to swing toward cruder rather than subtler responses to signs of unrest at home and challenges to their control. In a year that has already seen major demonstrations and the fall of governments across the Middle East and North Africa, the PRC leadership has become paranoid about the possibility that China could be the next country to experience an outbreak of widespread protests. Even the slightest whiff of Jasmine in the air has become enough to trigger repressive actions. Focused on maintaining their grip on power, Chinese leaders have engaged in an increasingly restrictive crackdown on free expression, countering scattered calls for a ?Jasmine Revolution? with what the New Yorker?s Evan Osnos has termed ?The Big Chill.?

The government?s moves started off small and were initially aimed at cyberspace. In January, it tightened its censorship of the internet a bit, blocking more sites than it had before?including The China Beat, the blog/electronic magazine that I edit, with Jeff, Kenneth Pomeranz, and Kate Merkel-Hess serving as consulting editors?but not shutting down access to others (though social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been blocked in the PRC for quite some time). Rumors of a Gmail hack spread in February and March, as users began noticing that connection speeds at the site had slowed to a crawl. And many who sought to evade internet controls by accessing blocked websites through a Virtual Private Network (VPN) found that their VPNs had been disabled, necessitating the purchase of a new proxy.

Yet these restrictions, irritating though they might be, affected only a small percentage of China?s massive population of web users. More noticeable disruptions of public order occurred in major cities in late February and early March, as rumors of anti-government protests spread in the wake of the Arab Spring. Online calls for a Sunday demonstration to begin at the McDonald?s on Wangfujing (a popular pedestrian shopping street not far from Tiananmen Square) attracted the attention of both the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) and foreign journalists?though few actual protestors joined the gathering. It is unclear how many people in China even knew of the planned demonstration, as details for the event were posted on overseas Chinese sites not easily accessible on the mainland without a VPN. Similarly vague rumors swirled in subsequent weeks, again drawing crowds largely composed of PSB officers and members of the foreign press corps.

The most significant action taken by the government has been to round up and detain (for varying lengths of time) several dozen human rights lawyers and activists, as well as to sentence democracy activist Liu Xianbin to 10 years in prison for ?inciting subversion of state power? (the same crime for which Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, whose harsh treatment in 2009 stood out at the time as something of an anomaly but now appears more an ominous precursor of things to come, is currently serving an 11-year sentence). And in just the past week, prominent artist and activist Ai Weiwei was arrested as he boarded a flight from Beijing to Hong Kong; Ai?s detention has sparked an international outcry and has served to call attention to what Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch describes as the leadership?s ongoing effort ?to redefine the limits of permissible expression and roll back the advances made by Chinese civil society over the past decade.? As of this writing, it is unclear where Ai, an internationally famous figure from a nationally renowned family (his father, Ai Qing, was one of China?s leading poets of the last century) is or what he might be charged with, though the government has insisted that his detention is due to ?economic crimes? that have ?nothing to do with human rights or freedom of expression.?

From minor internet slowdowns to the arrests of government critics, these are all troubling developments, and none of us knows where they might lead. What might be most unusual about China?s current big chill, however, is that the government is largely responding to events beyond its borders; there has been little indication that Chinese citizens themselves intend to stage protests (beyond the sort that they have been mounting steadily for years over issues such as land grabs by unscrupulous developers in league with local officials) or seek regime change in their country, which is far more stable and economically prosperous than those where the revolutions of 2011 have taken place thus far. The question of the moment, then, is not how to interpret protest in China today, but rather how to interpret the actions of a government whose fear of protest has settled so deep that its leaders are now seeking to silence people before they have begun to speak.

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