The challenges currently facing the Chinese government include more than the rising tensions in the South China Sea and the murder charges against an ousted Politburo member's wife. The current challenges speak to the very manner in which the Communist Party of China (CPC) treats longtime dissidents, students and increasingly broad cross-sections of society. So far, the activists that have been the most effective at raising their concerns have predictably received the harshest treatment from the government.
On July 27, 2012, a Beijing court rejected human rights defender Ni Yulan's appeal of her spurious April 10, 2012, "disturbance" conviction. While the court tossed out equally spurious "fraud" charges, which reduced her 32-month prison sentence by two months, Ni, who is disabled and reportedly malnourished, will remain imprisoned until late 2014. The original sentence prompted US Ambassador to China Gary Locke to express concern, "particularly in light of the past abuses she has suffered."
Additionally, on July 20, 2012, a Beijing court rejected activist-artist Ai Weiwei's appeal of the $2.4 million tax bill that was imposed by Beijing municipal tax authorities in the aftermath of his 81-day enforced disappearance by Chinese security forces in early 2011. Ai says the tax bill is a politically motivated punishment for his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government.
Finally, on July 6, 2012, Li Wangyang, a longtime critic of the Chinese government's official cover-up of the June 1989 massacre, died in the hospital while under police guard. A police investigation determined that Li had committed suicide, but a coalition of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese lawyers have criticized that conclusion and now demand a fresh probe into Li's death.
The May 10, 2012, arrival in the US of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and his family was cheered by those familiar with the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of the Chinese government. However, the blind activist's choice to temporarily leave China to study in the US underscored the dangers that the Chinese government's low tolerance for dissent poses to people like Chen. With Chen's nephew, Chen Kegui, facing attempted murder charges after he attempted to defend himself and his family from an attack on his home by armed men, Chen's torments are far from over.
Despite the Chinese government's reflex tendency to silence high-profile advocates of peaceful dissent, the Chinese people have not remained silent. In fact, acts of public defiance by an increasingly rights-conscious citizenry appear to be occurring more frequently. While politicized court proceedings continued against Ai Weiwei and Ni Yulan, thousands of residents of Shifang, a city located in the Sichuan province, took to the streets to protest potential environmental health effects from a planned oil refinery. The protests, which were unique in that they involved large numbers of students — a rare phenomenon since the protests which culminated in the June 1989 massacre — eventually yielded an official promise to shelve the planned project.
Shifang's citizens are not alone in challenging the government. A Chinese academic estimated that there are up to 500 daily "mass incidents," the official term for public protests. Those demonstrations, which can consist of fewer than a dozen to thousands of protesters, focus on grievances ranging from official corruption and abuse of government power to growing environmental health concerns. Although the Chinese government blocks its citizens' access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, domestic social media networks such as Weibo are proving indispensable in helping to inform and catalyze Chinese citizens about alleged official malfeasance.
China's growing numbers of rights-savvy, assertive citizens and the protests they organize have clearly spooked the government. The Chinese government this year reportedly allocated $111 billion for "social stability maintenance," its Orwellian term for the domestic security apparatus, which represents a 12 percent increase over 2011. Those funds provide the ruling CPC with massive human, financial and technological resources to surveil individuals, to censor the media and to bribe, bully or bludgeon perceived threats to their 62-year monopoly on power.
However, even elements of China's government recognize that such methods of maintaining its avowed goals of "social stability" and "harmony" are failing and counterproductive. A July 19, 2012 editorial in the CPC's newspaper People's Daily criticized the government's spending on "stability maintenance" as "palliative and shortsighted" and urged the government to address "deep-rooted reasons for the incidents of instability."
That is the Chinese government's dilemma.
Addressing the root causes of growing popular protests in China will require meaningful change in how the country is governed — which will inevitably undermine the CPC's grip on power. What China needs is real rule of law and a functioning legal system free from government coercion so that social conflicts can be resolved without mass street protests. Street protests powered by rumors of tainted food or industrial toxins will continue until the Chinese government ends its pervasive censorship regime and allows prompt and accurate reporting on issues of public health and safety. Likewise, protests related to the exploitation and abuse of China's 220 million migrant workers will not stop until the Chinese government abolishes the discriminatory household registration system — hukou— that denies them state-sponsored access to medical care and education for their children.
Lifting restrictions on universal rights and freedoms already enshrined in China's laws and constitution will loosen the chokehold of the CPC on society and open it up to public challenges to its legitimacy. A fairer and more just society of informed citizens able to express their discontent and challenge the status quo poses a palpable threat to how the CPC has ruled for the past six decades.
However, until the Chinese government recognizes that the cost-benefit analysis of the status quo does not favor even the CPC's self-serving conceptions of "stability" and "harmony," Chinese dissidents — whether they be high-profile individuals such as Ni Yulan, Chen Guangcheng and Ai Weiwei or the crowds of unknown protesters — will continue to mount a growing challenge to the Chinese government and its abusive standard operating procedure.
Phelim Kine is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.