Dissent in China
The year of living dissidently
Jan 15th 2009 | BEIJING
From The Economist print edition
For the government and its critics, a calendar mined with sensitive anniversaries
THE months ahead will be busy for Chinese dissidents. A string of sensitive anniversaries will evoke numerous petitions calling for political change. In December more than 300 of the country’s most prominent activists issued a wide-ranging appeal for democratic reform. On January 12th a group of them were at it again, no less quixotically, with a demand for a boycott of national state-owned television.
As China’s economic growth falters and unemployment rises, political activists—marginalised during the past few years of prosperity—will become a bigger worry to the government. The 20th anniversary on June 4th of the quashing of the Tiananmen Square protests will be the highlight of the dissident calendar. For Tibetans it will be the 50th anniversary on March 10th of an uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India. Followers of Falun Gong, a quasi-Buddhist sect, will want to mark the tenth anniversary on July 22nd of its banning. Ever fearful of instability, the government will be especially anxious to quell dissent in the build-up to celebrations on October 1st of 60 years of Communist Party rule.
Dissidents can take some pride in their first salvo of the season. Their petition, known as Charter 08, which they issued online in early December to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was initially signed by 303 intellectuals. They included a wide range of lawyers, journalists, academics and activists. Organisers say that thousands more have added their names (by sending their details to an e-mail address), although the identities of many of them are difficult to verify.
Charter 08’s name was intended to recall that of Charter 77, a human-rights manifesto circulated by dissidents in Czechoslovakia in 1977. The Chinese version called for everything from private ownership of land to multiparty democracy. It said social tensions were building up and the number of protests was rapidly increasing, “indicating a tendency towards a disastrous loss of control”. Democratisation, it said, could “no longer be delayed”.
The authorities disagree. They quickly detained the chief organiser, Liu Xiaobo, a veteran Beijing activist, and threatened or questioned dozens of other signatories. Chinese internet-service providers removed postings about the document. A blog-hosting service, Bullog, home to several personal sites supportive of the charter, was shut down. A search in Chinese for the words Charter 08 on Google’s Chinese search engine now produces only a standard warning that “according to local laws, regulations and policies, some results have not been displayed”. Dai Qing, a prominent author and signatory, says the charter is unlikely to galvanise the public now that many cannot find it online to read.
The call for a boycott of the state broadcaster CCTV suggests some dissidents have not been deterred. Among the 22 people who signed the petition are seven, including its drafter, Ling Cangzhou, from Charter 08’s first group of signatories. The petition accuses CCTV of playing down reports about protests and other negative news. It mentions a CCTV report broadcast in September last year praising the quality controls on milk-powder production by Sanlu, a leading dairy company. Sanlu was revealed just a few days later to have been selling tainted baby formula that caused thousands of infants to fall sick.
The contaminated milk scandal, in which many other Chinese milk producers were also implicated, heightened public suspicion of officialdom just as concerns were beginning to grow about the impact on China of the global financial crisis. With a total of nearly 300,000 children affected by the milk, the government feared unrest. On January 1st police in Beijing detained five parents of sickened children for several hours, apparently to stop them holding a press conference to complain about compensation arrangements.
Officials allowed the press little access to the trial on December 31st of Sanlu’s boss, Tian Wenhua, and three other executives. Press reports say Ms Tian might be sentenced this week. Several officials have lost their jobs in connection with the scandal but none has been taken to court. Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing lawyer, says courts have ignored collective lawsuits he has filed on behalf of affected families. He is now planning to bring their cases to the Supreme Court. One of Mr Xu’s aides speculates that the government, anxious to put the tainted-milk affair behind it, wants families to accept out-of-court settlements.
Even the official media have given warning that 2009 could be troubled, as the economy wobbles. Liaowang, a weekly magazine, quoted a senior journalist as saying that China was entering a “peak period for mass incidents” (the usual official euphemism for protests and riots). The authorities, he said, could be tested by “even more conflicts and clashes”.
But few—even among dissidents—envisage upheaval on the scale of the pro-democracy protests in 1989. Hu Xingdou of the Beijing Institute of Technology says the public appetite for rapid political change still seems low. This month China’s police chief, Meng Jianzhu, said that as long as Beijing was stable, the whole country would be stable. To mark the anniversary festivities of the founding of the People’s Republic, the authorities will pull out every stop to ensure a trouble-free capital.