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The Forbidden Citizen

Why 2012 will be a very bad year to be a Chinese dissident - and what America can do about it.

Published in: Foreign Policy

It's only been a month, and 2012 is already looking bleak for the notion that peaceful criticism can exist within China. In January, a court in the central Chinese city of Wuhan sentenced writer Li Tie to 10 years on charges of subversion of state power, and prosecutors in Hangzhou charged poet Zhu Yufu with subversion for penning a poem about political reform. Prominent dissident Yu Jie, who fled China in January, explained at a press conference in Washington how Beijing policemen beat him for hours and burned him with cigarettes. In late December, a Sichuan court sentenced pro-democracy activist Chen Wei to nine years for subversion; a few days later a court in Guizhou gave government critic Chen Xi ten years on the same charge.Such harsh sentences, meted out to people who had merely exercised their constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression, send an unambiguous warning to critics of the Chinese government to keep silent.

China's ruling Communist Party has been treating dissidents with an increasingly heavy hand over the past few years. Fearing a "Jasmine Revolution" in the wake of the Arab Spring last year, the government shifted its strategy from just detaining critics to disappearing them. The internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei was arrested on April 3 and held in an undisclosed location until June 22. In 2009, China sentenced Liu Xiaobo, one of the chief architects of the Charter '08 democracy appeal, to 11 years in prison. When the Nobel committee awarded Liu the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, China started a campaign of intimidation by arresting, detaining, and intimidating other signatories, and by placing Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest despite the lack of a legal basis for doing so. And 2009 also saw the government unleash harsh repression in response to unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Contrary to the claims of the International Olympic Committee, whose president, Jacques Rogge, said that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would improve the Chinese human rights situation, the legacy appears to be the ascendance of the security state, a massive project of surveillance and censorship set in motion to quell any signs of protest around the games - and which continues unabated to this day.

But 2012 will likely be worse. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formally heads into its orchestrated leadership transition in which power will likely transfer from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, it will place a higher-than-normal premium on trying to maintain the façade of a "harmonious society." Concurrently, it faces unprecedented social unrest and demands for justice and accountability coming from all regions and across socioeconomic groups. Because the CCP remains profoundly hostile to free expression and refuses to loosen its tentacled grip on the legal system, it is left pursuing a strategy of "social management" that provides only piecemeal relief - and may well fuel even greater outrage.

In early December 2011, the citizens of the fishing village of Wukan, fed up with local Communist Party officials' obfuscation over land sales of dubious legality, began to protest. In a highly unusual role reversal, the officials fled and the people of Wukan governed themselves for two weeks. With the reputation of Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang on the line, and with extensive domestic and international media coverage, the local government dispatched mediators, promised to investigate returning some of the land to the villagers, and appointed the protest's leader to the position of village party secretary.

But since then, virtually no progress has been made on the land dispute. More problematic is the total failure of an investigation into the suspicious death in custody of one of the protest leaders. Although Wukan has achieved some gains, including an election, those may prove incomplete and reversible; moreover, the state's reaction to the incident betrays little indication that it is now more willing to systematically discuss criticisms.

While China's legal system may resemble one that interprets and upholds the law, the reality is that courts, judges, and lawyers answer to the CCP's dictates. To reconcile the growing number of indictments on the grounds of "endangering state security" with the lack of armed, organized threatsto the Chinese state, it helps to try and understand the government's interpretation of what constitutes a threat. The poet Zhu Yufu got a decade in prison on charges of subversion in part for writing, "It is time, people of China! It is time…The square belongs to us all; our feet are our own…It is time to use our feet to go to the square and to make a choice…We should use our choices to decide the future of China."At a time of unprecedented wealth and power, it is telling that the Chinese government finds such words so threatening.

The handful of Chinese lawyers trying to make the rule of law a reality have been targeted for trying to defend cases involving freedom of expression. At least six were disappeared and released in 2011. Equally worrying, the Chinese government - long a recipient of significant international assistance to promote the rule of law - has taken steps towards legalizing disappearances. If revisions to the Criminal Procedure Law are adopted as planned in March 2012, police will be entitled to detain for up to six months, at a location of their choice, suspects in alleged cases of "terrorism" or "national security" - notoriously vague designations that have often been used against peaceful government critics.

Many believe that the Chinese government, flush with cash and confidence, is impervious to criticism. The dozen or so governments that conduct regular human rights dialogues with Beijing issue statements of concern, meet dissidents, and discuss these problems among themselves. While the Chinese government clearly loathes these dialogues, it has for the most part learned to manage them without paying a pricefor its unrepentant abuses.Indeed, Western governments rarely impose penalties on the Chinese government. Instead, they look to Beijing for cooperation on a host of global diplomatic, security, and environmental issues - not to mention mutually beneficial trade relationships - and as such are often wary about overtly promoting the rights of people in China.

The United States has in the past year offered up some tough rhetoric on the Chinese government's human rights track record, but it has not publically articulated or imposed a price on Beijing for its abuses. Nor does it coordinate across the government to take full advantage of opportunities to promote rights. The free flow of information, a functional and independent legal system, and the ability of people to peacefully express criticism aren't just the purview of the human rights community - they are realities that fundamentally underpin economic and security ties as well. Every U.S. Cabinet member could raise a human rights issue when meeting with Chinese officials, but almost none - with the exception of Attorney General Eric Holder - have publically done so.

So it's time to change the game plan.

The United Statesand other countries should tell the Chinese government that it cannot dictate who its leaders meet. U.S. President Barack Obama should welcome into the White House activists like Yu Jie or Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer prior to the visit in February of China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, underscoring the importance of free speech and responsible civil dissent. Such gestures make America's rhetorical commitments to human rights manifest.

Governments have to consistently find - and use - their voice on rights. Officials from at least two EU member states were passing through Hangzhou when the poet Zhu Yufu's sentence was announced. Neither said a word publicly,missing a perfect opportunity to manifest these countries' stated bedrock commitment to human rights. Perhaps most important, governments need to make the defense of the freedom of expression in China an inescapable topic of all public and private discussions with Chinese officials. Doing so will help offer a degree of protection for individuals and demonstrate a seriousness of purpose that is difficult for Beijing to ignore.

In many countries, political transitions entail policy innovation, vigorous debate, and competition for popular support in elections. This will manifestly not be the case in China this year, and some people there will suffer terribly for merely pointing out this reality. Western governments should not be shy in noting the same. Failure to recognize the efforts of those who struggle daily to hold the Chinese government to the letter of the law and to exercise their rights only increases Beijing's sense of entitlement and impunity. It's already been a long year for dissidents in China - and it's only been a month. Let's not make it worse for them.  

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