China's Crackdown on Dissidents Continues

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Kin Cheung / AP

Protesters hold placards showing pictures of Gao Zhisheng and Liu Xiaobo during a demonstration outside the China Liaison office in Hong Kong on Feb. 4, 2010

When a string of Chinese dissidents were arrested or detained last year, the cause was often attributed to the large number of sensitive anniversaries that fell on the 2009 calendar. The first anniversary of the riots in Tibet, the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic all contributed to a defensive official outlook and a cold climate for civil rights in China. But that bleak trend also offered the hope that in the coming year, with a calendar relatively free of delicate periods, China's grip on free speech and dissent might relax.

So far that hasn't happened. The Chinese government has cracked down on activists just as aggressively during the first few weeks of 2010 as it did last year. In the past week, a court in Sichuan sentenced an activist investigating the deaths of children in schools that collapsed in the 2008 earthquake, a court in Beijing confirmed a lengthy jail term for the author of a 2008 pro-democracy manifesto, and the family of a trailblazing defense lawyer marked the one-year anniversary of his disappearance, which was presumably at the hands of state security officers. "This series of repression against dissent and activism ... I don't know if it's coincidence or reflective of a deeper meaning," says Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong–based researcher for the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights group. "Certainly looking at it from the outside, at case after case of heavy sentences being handed down for things that should be constitutionally protected rights, it's hard to come away from this and not see a hardening line."

On Tuesday a Sichuan court sentenced Tan Zuoren, a 55-year-old environmentalist and literary editor, to a five-year jail term for subversion in connection with his writings on the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Tan was also active in documenting the lives of the schoolchildren who died in the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which many parents blamed on school buildings that were built shoddily because of official corruption. While the subversion charges against Tan included his earthquake activism, he was convicted only for his commentary on the Tiananmen crackdown. Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer for Tan, says the issue of substandard schools was too sensitive for the Chengdu court. "A lot of government officials won't be safe if people start to ask questions about this, so the court only mentioned the least harmful reason in the ruling," says Pu. "They want to divert attention." Tan has appealed his conviction, writing simply, "I'm innocent; I object; I refuse to accept the verdict; I appeal."

Tan's conviction preceded the ruling on Thursday by a Beijing court confirming the Christmas Day 2009 sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic who was a chief author of Charter 08, a document that called for the Chinese government to uphold many of the values enshrined in the country's constitution. Like Tan, Liu was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power." Human-rights activists say Liu's 11-year sentence is exceptionally long, and the verdict has prompted an international outcry. U.S. Ambassador to China Jon M. Huntsman Jr. called on the government to release the 54-year-old scholar. "Mr. Liu has peacefully worked for the establishment of political openness and accountability in China," Huntsman said in a written statement. "Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights." The European Union's delegation in China said Liu's conviction was "entirely incompatible with his right to freedom of expression" — one of the rights officially promised in the framework of the People's Republic.

Perhaps the most disturbing recent case has been that of Gao Zhisheng, who hasn't been seen or heard from since he was detained by police in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2009. An uncompromising, self-taught lawyer, Gao once handled cases few others would touch — involving dispossessed villagers, members of underground Christian house churches and exploited factory workers. In 2001 the Ministry of Justice named him one of the country's top 10 lawyers. But his work on sensitive cases, most notably representing members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, led to his being seen as an enemy of the Chinese state. He was convicted of subversion in 2006 and given a three-year suspended sentence. In 2007 state security officers detained Gao after he wrote letters to the European Parliament and U.S. Congress complaining about human rights in China. During his 10-day detention he was subjected to grotesque and brutal torture, according to his written account. Gao said he was warned he would be killed if he ever spoke about the savagery he endured.

In January 2009, after years of monitoring and harassment led Gao's teenage daughter to attempt suicide, his family decided to flee. Gao's wife Geng He took their daughter and infant son and slipped away from their official minders in Beijing. They traveled south, aided by a network of Falun Gong practitioners, and eventually crossed into Burma and then Thailand. Two months later they reached the U.S., where they were given political asylum. On the first anniversary of Gao's disappearance, Geng demanded that the Chinese government produce her husband. So far her cries have been met with disdain. A police officer told Gao's brother in January that he had gone missing while out on a walk, an improbable claim given the level of monitoring he had been subject to in recent years. On Jan. 21 a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Gao was "where he should be."

Gao's supporters suspect he is being held by state security officers and fear that he might be so badly abused that the authorities are afraid to have him be seen in public. "We are determined not to rest until we know where Gao is and whether he's dead or alive," says Bob Fu, a U.S.-based Chinese Christian activist who helped Gao's family escape. "He's a symbol of China's conscience, of the weak and vulnerable. The whole world should hold the Chinese government accountable for his disappearance."