If I looked at the news out of China today and saw good things I’d perhaps put up positive posts, provided i felt I had anything useful to add. But looking at the news today, and over the past several days, I see really bad news, to the point of alarming. Arresting good people on trumped-up charges and holding them in secret places and giving them obscene sentences has been an ongoing topic here for many years. But usually these are isolated instances. Shi Tao. Zhao Yan. Hu Jia. Aside from the typical pre-party congress and pre-Tiananmen anniversary sweeps, we don’t often see a calculated nationwide roundup of innocent Chinese citizens the government sees as potential threats.
We’re seeing it now, and it looks like another huge leap backwards. While the Chinese media spew forth one story after another on the need for greater rule of law, fair representation, no arrests without transparent processes, etc., the government that supports these media is going in the exact opposite direction, reminding us that absolutely no one on Chinese soil is safe. As Evan Osnos in an excellent post makes clear, even the best and brightest are at risk.
Imagine, for a moment, how it might sound to turn on the news one day and hear that the head of the A.C.L.U. had vanished from his home in the predawn hours. Or, think how America might be different today if a pesky young Thurgood Marshall had been silenced using an obscure tax rule and kept out of the courts.
At around 5 A.M. on Wednesday, Chinese authorities visited the home of Xu Zhiyong, a prominent legal scholar and elected legislator in Beijing, and led him away. He has not been heard from again. Unless something changes, he is likely to stay away for a long time, with or without formal charges. Anyone with an interest in China, its economy, its place in the world, or the kind of future it will fashion, please take note: This is a big deal.
Xu might not have reached Marshall status yet, but he is as close as China gets to a public-interest icon. He teaches law at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications. He has also run the Open Constitution Initiative, a legal aid and research organization that worked on many of China’s path-breaking cases. He and his colleagues had investigated the Sanlu milk scandal, in which dangerous baby formula harmed children’s health, and assisted people who had been locked up by local officials in secret undeclared jails. All of those activities are emphatically consistent with the goals of the Chinese government, even if they angered the local bureaucrats who were caught in the act.
Xu has never set out to undermine one-party rule; he is enforcing rights guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution. He has enough faith in the system that he joined it: in 2003, he ran for and won a seat as a legislator in his local district assembly, one of the few independent candidates to be elected in an open, contested election. He even received the recognition, rare among activists, of being profiled last year in a Chinese newspaper. “I have taken part in politics in pursuit of a better and more civilized nation,” he said at the time.
As Osnos goes on to say, few in China have done more for the good of the general public than Xu. He urges the government to release him “before the full bureaucracy gets too much invested in holding him, but time is limited. China deserves better than this kind of behavior.”
Does it really all go back to the October beauty pageant? We just saw the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s greatest source of insecurity and paranoia, and the actions taken in the months prior seem relatively lame compared to the 60th anniversary. My own site pumped out posts about June 4 for weeks before the anniversary, and for five days following. (The ax didn’t fall until June 9 for reasons I still don’t understand and probably never will.) And the detentions at the time seemed at least explainable – the usual suspects who get detained every year. This seems different. They are going after people who are heroes to many in China. Even a defender of the rights of marginalized citizens.
This nacht und nebel approach makes China look absolutely atrocious. People like me who have tried to seek out the positive achievements the party has made in order to provide a fair picture of China today have no choice but to express deep criticism (and that’s a wonderful link).
The lives of your average citizens in China have become so much freer and more open in recent years, and criticism of the government has become so much more accepted and even expected (within the usual constraints, of course) that what we’re seeing now can only be described as a tragedy. Will they take advantage of the very small window of opportunity they still have and show that they are capable of living up to their own doctrines of rule of law? I hope so. But I seriously doubt it. With a few minor exceptions, China has consistently disappointed us when it comes to its treatment of high-profile cases of alleged “dissidents.” It’s their choice. They are on the verge of an unprecedented drop in goodwill.
Update: See this outstanding piece by Isabel Hilton on how China’s formula – “if repression doesn’t work, add more repression” – illustrates the country’s political malaise, and could ultimately lead to implosion. I am not willing to go that far (yet). But we’ll be hearing a lot more about this if China keeps adding fuel to the fire. Hilton includes a beautiful quote from Xu after the closure of his NGO:
“It’s not us causing trouble, and the tens of thousands of mass incidents every year aren’t caused by us …. On the contrary, we strive to bring into line the contradictions caused by corrupt officials, we advocate absolute nonviolence and we hope we can ameliorate some of the endless hate and conflicts in our society… do not let this country once more be dragged by those in power to a place where we are dead but not buried.
Why have we been targeted with this retribution? Because we have an awe-inspiring righteousness, because we advocate for better politics, because our dreams are too beautiful, because we as a people have never given up hope, because no matter what befalls, our hearts are always full of the sunlight of hope.
…I am a poor man, so poor that all I have left are my beliefs. Great leaders, can I give you a little bit of my belief? You should be needing these beliefs and you should, like me, have the ability to show compassion, compassion to see the restless souls disturbed by evil spirits.”
Will the “great leaders” listen? I’m skeptical.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.