Behind China's Big Chill

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Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye, at this year's Cannes Film Festival

The five-year filmmaking ban imposed by Chinese authorities on director Lou Ye is just the latest signal from Beijing that its tolerance for even minor signs of dissent has shrunk dramatically. According to state media reports, the director entered his latest movie, Summer Palace,at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival earlier this year without seeking approval from Chinese authorities. Although the film is a romance, it is set during the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, still very much a sensitive topic in Beijing.

The last 18 months have seen a growing number of arrests, detentions, prison sentences and other measures apparently aimed at heading off greater freedom of expression, not just in the arts, but in religion, the Internet and both the foreign and state-run media. Last week, reporter Ching Cheong was sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly spying for the government of Taiwan, a charge his family and lawyers say is unfounded. The Hong Kong-born journalist was working for the Singapore Straits Times when he was arrested. A few days earlier, Zhao Yan, a researcher in the New York Times' Beijing bureau, was handed a three-year sentence for fraud. Both men have already spent several years in prison. Other outspoken reporters and editors at Chinese publications have been fired from their jobs, detained or sentenced to prison terms for what their lawyers say are patently trumped-up charges.

Blind public interest lawyer Chen Guangcheng, meanwhile, found himself on the receiving end of a four-year, three-month sentence last week. He was charged with obstructing traffic and damaging property. Chen, who is best known for his work on behalf of women forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations as part of the nation's family-planning campaign, has said he will appeal the sentence, handed down by a court in his native town of Linyi. Chen has repeatedly angered local party officials in Linyi, particularly through his revelations about the forced sterilization program run in the area. Supporters say it is no coincidence that those same officials oversee the court that sentenced the activist.

Recent months have also seen a tightening of control over religious affairs, an area where Beijing had previously wielded a relatively light touch. In early July, respected preacher and religious activist Zhang Rongliang was jailed for seven and a half years on a pointedly non-religious charge: forging a passport. Later the same month, 82-year-old underground Catholic bishop Yao Liang was arrested along with another priest, according to Catholic activists. And on July 29 the resort city of Hangzhou was the site of what some witnesses call the biggest confrontation between security forces and Christians, a bloody clash over the demolition of a church involving thousands of protesters and police.

As ever in China, figuring out exactly what senior Communist Party cadres intend by such actions is a frustrating and sometimes fruitless exercise. China watchers remain divided about just how centrally coordinated such actions are. In the case of Chen Guangcheng, for example, it is unclear whether his sentence was solely decided by local officials or sanctioned — even tacitly — by Beijing. Some speculate that China's President Hu Jintao is putting on a show of strength to bolster his relatively weak grip on the reins of power; the crackdown is seen as clearing the decks of potentially embarrassing dissenters before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in the summer of 2008. The Chinese authorities are particularly sensitive to media coverage in periods leading up to major events like the Games. Many analysts note also that the latest round of sentencing was pointedly held up until after President Hu's visit to Washington in May.

"It is a concerted effort," by Beijing, argues Pei Minxin, director of the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. "The guiding principle in the crackdown is the old mind-set: toughness works. The leadership has a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, it tries to adopt policies that appear to be populist and friendly to the downtrodden, such as cutting rural taxes and increasing spending. On the other, it intensifies political control and targets troublemakers."

Whatever the reasons behind them, though, there is little doubt that the jailings and other measures are having a chilling impact. "Of course it makes us scared," says one Christian who witnessed the clash at Hangzhou. "We call it killing the chicken to scare the monkey. They are using us as an example so that other Christians in the rest of the country are obedient."