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Dissidents missing ahead of China meet

Beijing, March 4: Dozens of dissidents on a national hungerstrike to protest the Chinese government’s human rights polices have gone missing across China just as the country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, goes into session here tomorrow.

The trouble began last month when Yang Maodong, alias Guo Feixiong, a prominent human rights activist, was beaten up by thugs suspected of being hired by local police. A small group of activists led by Gao Zhisheng, a Beijing-based activist lawyer, then began a hungerstrike in protest.

As news of the hunger-strike spread within the growing ranks of the disaffected, many of whom Gao has represented in cases against the government, hundreds began to join in.

“We’re using our own bodies, in our own homes to do what we choose; yet people who have joined the hunger strike are disappearing,” Gao said in a telephone interview on yesterday. The next day Gao, who recently had his licence suspended for a year after taking on several politically-charged cases, was detained by authorities.

Other prominent dissidents who have been arrested so far include Qi Zhiyong, 50, a Tiananmen Square-era protester who lost a leg after he was shot during the 1989 student protests, and Hu Jia, 31, a Beijing-based activist who was blacklisted by authorities after he revealed how a botched blood donation campaign in central Henan province had created a massive AIDS epidemic there.

On Thursday, Liu Jianchao, a spokesperson from the Chinese foreign ministry said that the protesters were not conducting their affairs “under a legal framework”.

Later Xu Hu, an official from the ministry of public Security ministry official, confirmed that 15,000 police assisted by 620,000 citizen volunteers would clear Beijing of “bad elements” ahead of the parliament session.

“This is aimed at reducing certain factors that might harm public order,” Xu was quoted as saying by local media.

While Chinese authorities routinely round up dissidents before politically sensitive periods, such as June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, or when the NPC is in session, the current crackdown seems more ferocious, said Brad Adams, the London-based Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“The government seems to have gone into fear mode over the last few years,” Adams said in the telephone interview. “From the outside it just seems absurd. But maybe they know something we don’t know about the fragility of the political system.”

Last year, more than 74,000 public protests rocked China, about 50 per cent more than the previous year, the ministry of public security said. Until now, most of these rallies were over local or personal grievances, such as unpaid wages and pensions and illegal land seizures.

But with China now having 377 million cellphones and 111 million Internet users, the country’s dissatisfied have increasingly been learning to organise and unite themselves.

That’s making the authorities here particularly nervous, said Adams, but it’s also created a problem.

“The government has cracked down so much that today most of the major activists are already in jail”, Adams added. “That means good people who once stayed inside the system and pushed the rules and who could have been tapped to modernise China, have been forced to step outside the system.”

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