It wasn't supposed to be like this. Many members of China's fledgling dissident community had hoped that after the successful hosting of the Olympics last summer, the control that authorities had exercised over the country's dissenting voices would ease up. Some human rights advocates, academics and other analysts in and out of China even expressed optimism that long-awaited reforms to the judiciary, the media, in labor relations and in the treatment of non-governmental organizations would finally materialize.
To many rights advocates, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that those reforms are still a long ways off. "It used to be the case that whatever the negative developments and systematic smothering of dissent, there were always some signs of hope and potential advances on other fronts," says Nicholas Bequelin, a China researcher with the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But recently the good news has been very few and far between. There has been a total lack of progress on legal reform, the media, rural reform, labor. These issues were very much carrying forward hope for opening up of Chinese society, but now there's just nothing on the horizon." (Read "China Takes on the World.")
Bequelin and others say the Communist Party's profound fear of the impact of the world economic crisis on China's already fragile social stability has strengthened party hardliners. They argue that the lack of international response to Beijing's suppression of political dissent before and during the Olympic Games the jailing and intimidation of dissidents like Hu Jia, for example makes even more stringent repression now the government's best option. Sinologists say a series of sensitive anniversaries that fall this year including the 20th anniversary of the crushing of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic will likely contribute to the chill. Even political jockeying at the Party's top levels is stifling openings for reform, with leaders reluctant to make any bold move that might jeopardize the delicate equilibrium in a government essentially run by collective decision-making.
The government's tightening grip has manifested itself in every area of Chinese life. One prominent activist was detained and many others interrogated by police after some 300 people signed the "Charter 08," a document published last year calling for more democracy and respect for human rights. China's best know activist lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who has been in and out of detention for several years and whose latest five-year sentence for "subversion" had been suspended, disappeared once again in early February after what was apparently a first-hand account of his jailing and torture by security forces appeared on the internet. His wife, two children and sister all of whom have also allegedly been subject to physical and mental abuse by police were smuggled out of the country in early March, and are now in the United States. In a related development, a Beijing law firm known for defending dissidents and others seeking redress from the authorities was shut down for six months in late February. The Yitong law firm, which defended dissident Hu Jia who is now serving a three-year sentence for subversion, was ordered shut by legal authorities, ostensibly for allowing one of its lawyers to work at the firm without a license.
But even smaller manifestations of independent thinking are bringing a swift response. In mid-March, the mainland's Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch reported that Zhang Shijun, a former People's Liberation Army solider who wrote an open letter expressing his regret about the crackdown on protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, was taken away from his home in the middle of the night by armed policemen. There has been no news since then of Zhang, who had served in one of the military units that put down the protests and contributed to the loss of hundreds of lives.
Authorities have also ratcheted up their vigilance online. Puns have long been a popular way for China's 270 million netizens to expressing frustration with the level of censorship they suffer. That subversive tactic, which had been quietly tolerated in the past, was recently cracked down on when a pun went viral that involved a mythical animal called a "grass mud horse" a thinly masked homonym for a very rude Chinese phrase involving sex acts and a close relative. By the time one enterprising netizen had concocted a video clip purporting to show grass mud horses cavorting in an equally mythical (and equally rudely named) desert, China's net nanny swung into action and attempted to erase all trace of the offending animal.
Such absurdities underline the extent to which the government is now willing to go to preserve a "harmonious society," in President Hu Jintao's oft quoted catchphrase. Whereas previous leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin have taken risky steps such as opening the country to economic reform and joining the World Trade Organization, the administration of President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao seems "paralyzed by fear of the downside," as Bequelin of Human Rights Watch puts it. He says the state's level of control has always oscillated, but with a long period of heavy repression having already past and no prospect of relief in sight, the risk of serious destabilization is growing fast.
And while social unrest itself is unlikely to threaten the Communist Party's dominance, with the Hu administration so heavily invested in social harmony, it could become vulnerable to infighting if grassroots unrest gets significantly worse. Scholar Min Xinpei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C. argues that the real danger for China is likely to come from discord among the top leadership rather than street demonstrations. As Pei writes in a recent Foreign Policy article, internal Party turmoil could render authorities "less capable of containing social instability and thus creating a vicious cycle of events that could result in progressive destabilization."