A police vehicle patrols as paramilitary policemen stand guard near Tiananmen Square. (Reuters)
Beijing, May 27: Even by the standards of the clampdowns that routinely mark politically sensitive dates in China, the approach this year to June 4, the anniversary of the day in 1989 when soldiers brutally ended student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, has been particularly severe.
The days preceding June 4 often mean house arrest for vocal government critics and an Internet scrubbed free of even coded references to the crackdown that dare not speak its name.
But this year, the 25th anniversary of the bloodshed that convulsed the nation and nearly sundered the Communist Party, censors and security forces have waged an aggressive “stability maintenance” campaign that has sent a chill through the ranks of Chinese legal advocates, liberal intellectuals and foreign journalists.
In recent weeks, a dozen prominent scholars and activists have been arrested or criminally detained, and even seemingly harmless gestures, like posting a selfie in Tiananmen Square while flashing a V for victory, have led to detentions.
The police have been warning Western journalists to stay away from the square in the coming days or “face grave consequences,” according to several reporters summoned to meetings with stone-faced public security officials. Amnesty International has compiled a list of nearly 50 people across the country that it says have been jailed, interrogated or placed under house arrest.
“They say it’s springtime in Beijing, but it feels like winter,” said Hu Jia, an AIDS activist and seasoned dissident who has been forcibly confined to his apartment for the past three months.
The growing list of those swept up by China’s expansive security apparatus includes a group of gay rights advocates gathered at a Beijing hotel, several Buddhists arrested as they were meditating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and an ex-soldier turned artist who staged in a friend’s studio a performance piece that was inspired by the government’s efforts to impose amnesia on an entire nation.
“The response has been harsher and more intense than we’ve ever seen,” said Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
To political analysts and rights advocates, the campaign provides further evidence that President Xi Jinping, 15 months into the job, is determined to stamp out dissent amid an ideological assault against liberal ideas that many view as part of a wide-ranging drive to consolidate power. “Until this latest crackdown I was agnostic about Xi, but recent events suggest he would like to be a Mao-style strongman if he could,” said Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California, Riverside.
Although the red line of permissible public discourse often shifts with the seasons and the whims of those in power, many longtime China watchers say the changes have caught even the most battle-scarred dissidents off guard.
As evidence, they point to the authorities’ forceful response to a seminar, held at a private home in early May, during which more than a dozen people met to discuss the events of 1989. In the days that followed, the participants, including relatives of those killed during the crackdown, were summoned for questioning by the police.
But unlike a similar, much larger event in 2009, five of the attendees were formally arrested. Among them: Hao Jian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy; Xu Youyu, a philosophy scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; and Pu Zhiqiang, a charismatic rights lawyer. All face charges of “creating a public disturbance.”
Since then, the police have repeatedly searched Pu’s law office and home, carting away computers, financial documents and a DVD of a documentary about the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, a former client.
In an interview, one of his lawyers, Zhang Sizhi, described the charges as illogical. “How can you create a public disturbance while meeting in a private residence?” he asked.
Zhang and others say it seems increasingly unlikely Pu will be released after June 4, the pattern of previous anniversary-related detentions.
In building a case against him, the authorities have rounded up a number of Pu’s friends and associates, among them Vivian Wu, an independent journalist, and Xin Jiang, a news assistant with the Japanese newspaper Nikkei.
Friends say they are unclear why the authorities detained Xin, although some thought it might be related to an earlier interview she conducted with Pu.
On Tuesday, two weeks after her disappearance, Xin’s husband took to social media, posting a family photo and a frantic cry for help. “It’s a mess at home,” the husband, Wang Haichun, wrote. “Please come back. I can’t bear this alone.”
The anguish is shared by friends of Liu Wei, a young factory worker from southwest China who was detained on criminal charges on May 17 after returning home to Chongqing from a visit to Beijing. According to a friend, Huang Chengcheng, Liu’s apparent crime was posting online photos of himself in Tiananmen Square, including one in which he flashed a victory sign, a common pose among Chinese tourists that can also be seen as a sly act of subversion.