In the midst of China's worst spike in official repression in more than a decade, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke out April 14 about the need for his government to "encourage people to speak truthfully." The irony of Mr. Wen's words would not be lost on the globally recognized activist-artist Ai Weiwei, just one of dozens of artists, lawyers, civil society activists and bloggers detained, arrested or missing since mid-February. The crackdown, sparked by official fears of a possible Middle Eastern-style "jasmine revolution" that could threaten the Chinese Communist Party's 61-year monopoly on power, shows no sign of abating.
Mr. Ai's case is emblematic of the increasingly thuggish tactics of security forces tasked with smothering dissent in recent weeks. Mr. Ai disappeared into police custody at Beijing Capital Airport on April 3 and has been incommunicado ever since. Government explanations of Mr. Ai's fate consist of a single sentence - issued April 7 through Xinhua - that Mr. Ai had been detained for unspecified "economic crimes."
Mr. Ai emerged as an outspoken advocate of truth in China in August 2007 when he disparaged the upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics as the "fake smile" of a repressive government.
Since then, his pursuit of truth has ranged from conducting an independent tally of the child victims of the massive May 2008 Sichuan earthquake to publicly demonstrating support for Chinese human-rights defenders. But Mr. Ai's stature as the son of a renowned revolutionary poet and his own artistic accomplishments didn't make him immune from state reprisals. His activism reaped surveillance, harassment and a police beating in August 2009 that required emergency brain surgery a month later. In a September 2010 interview, Mr. Ai described his activism as an explicit challenge to the "ethics" of an authoritarian regime in which "everything is secret, everything is not speakable."
But Mr. Ai is just one of dozens of Chinese citizens persecuted by their government over the past two months for doing what Mr. Wen urged and for demanding that the government uphold its constitutional and international obligations. Since mid-February, Chinese security forces have "disappeared" at least 18 others, denying them their right to due legal process and contact with loved ones and legal counsel, and heightening their vulnerability to torture while in custody. Dozens of other have been officially detained, arrested or received sentences of up to two years in re-education labor camps.
Those who have disappeared include the Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer Liu Shihui, who was abducted after being brutally beaten at a bus stop Feb. 20. Those individuals who have re-emerged after disappearing, including Beijing-based human rights lawyer Teng Biao, who reappeared April 29 after a 69-day disappearance, appear to have been intimidated - or worse - into silent seclusion.
Chinese officials stonewalled U.S. government efforts to get clarity on these disappearances during the annual two-day U.S.-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue in Beijing on April 27 and 28. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told reporters at the conclusion of the dialogue, "There was no sense of comfort from the response or the lack of response" from Chinese government officials regarding Mr. Ai's whereabouts or well-being.
The contrast between Mr. Wen's call for "truth" and his government's attack on citizens who take him at his word is nothing new. Both Mr. Wen and President Hu Jintao have, in recent months, expressed a degree of support for universal human rights. Just more than a month after Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo became the world's sole imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mr. Hu stated at a joint news conference with President Obama on Jan. 19, "China is always committed to the protection and promotion of human rights [and] China recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights."
In an Oct. 3, 2010, interview with CNN, Mr. Wen expressed strong support for basic human rights and asserted that "we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we, more importantly, must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government." Chinese government censors blocked all transmission of that interview and forbade circulation of the transcript within the country.
The glaring disconnect between the rhetoric of China's leaders on rule of law and the far grimmer reality on the ground should be a matter of urgent concern for all nations banking on a stable, mutually beneficial diplomatic and financial relationship with an increasingly confident and economically powerful China. In Washington earlier this week, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, spoke with refreshing candor about the "vigorous disagreement" between the two countries on human rights. Those U.S. officials owe it to Ai Weiwei, Li Shihui and the many other casualties of the Chinese government's hostility to dissent to ensure that their sacrifice for truth and respect for universal rights and freedoms are an important part of the agenda for all bilateral discussions in the months and years ahead.
Phelim Kine is a researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.