The displeasure of Beijing is an old story to China's dissidents. In recent months many activists thought they saw a more relaxed line in a series of small leniencies--a call for human rights allowed here, a book of reformist essays published there. One of the more experienced among them also recognized that a backlash was possible, perhaps inevitable. He had already been arrested more than 10 times in his life, Wuhan-based campaigner Qin Yongmin told journalists in July. What was one more?
Last week he found out. On Monday night police in Wuhan arrested Qin for "threatening state security"--a crime that could land him behind bars for life. At the same time, agents searched the Beijing home of Xu Wenli--another prominent dissident active in the movement to register the opposition China Democracy Party (CDP)--and dragged the longtime activist off to a detention center. The same week police also formally charged Wang Youcai, one of the CDP's founders, in Hangzhou. Many found the timing of the crackdown odd, both because of the liberal signals given off by Beijing recently and because the government had signed the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in October. More jaded eyes, however, now view that brief period of tolerance as the true aberration. "What's surprising is that people like Xu have been able to go on for some while with these activities," says Sophia Woodman, Hong Kong-based research director of Human Rights in China. "China never said it was moving toward reform."
If authorities had any thought of signaling a new attitude, this week's 50th anniversary of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights would have presented the ideal opportunity. Instead, the onset of the Dec. 10 commemoration may have prompted the wave of arrests: officials fear that the CDP may have had public activities planned, and the prospect of a string of upcoming, equally significant dates (including the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre next June) only added to their anxiety. Since its inception in June, the CDP has attracted at least 500 public members across nine provinces and two major cities (including a Beijing-Tianjin chapter founded by Xu last month). Its undeclared numbers are far greater and--thanks in part to the spread of electronic mail--are growing at a rate that clearly makes hardliners uneasy.
That may have given conservatives an excuse to shed the relatively low profile they have maintained recently. Ex-Premier Li Peng returned to the spotlight a week before the arrests and only days before Chinese President Jiang Zemin embarked on a visit to Japan. In an interview with the German daily Handelsblatt, Li lashed out at the "boisterous chaos" of Western democracies and vowed that any group opposing the Communist Party "will not be allowed to exist." (At about that time, says Xu's wife He Xintong, security agents stepped up their surveillance of the dissident.) The CDP's charter carefully acknowledges the "leading role" of the Communist Party. But given the wellspring of potential discontent now furnished by China's unemployed millions, authorities have no tolerance for even a skeletal organized opposition.
The more moderate Jiang has lost some incentive to follow through with commitments like those mandated by the civil-rights covenant. After Tokyo refused to grant Jiang a written apology for wartime atrocities, his visit quickly degenerated into a public-relations disaster, with the Chinese President denouncing Japan's semi-official recidivism in every speech. The experience may have soured Beijing on the worth of international opinion, after months of trying to rebuild its reputation in the West. "It's a shame to see that frittered away for the purpose of silencing a small group of dissidents," says a Western diplomat. "It's ill-advised."
Such talk draws a swift and well-worn response: after the U.S. State Department lodged a protest, the Foreign Ministry retorted that the case was "part of China's internal affairs, and other countries have no right to interfere." The refrain indicates just how little has changed in Beijing. "We've been through this before," says one Chinese official. "We'll do what we have to do, regardless of what the Americans think or say." Dissidents now scoff at the idea that Beijing has made any sincere concession by signing the U.N. covenant, which allows for freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. According to Harvard lecturer Gao Xin, one of four intellectuals who staged a hunger strike just before the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, the recent period of calm was dictated only by the Party's need to gather evidence against CDP organizers. Media reports of a newfound openness in Beijing, say Gao, "misguided public opinion, which in turn forced the Party to return to its old ways."
Those ways are intimately familiar to both Xu and Qin, who between them have spent more than two decades in detention. "My bag is always packed and behind the door," Xu told TIME only weeks before his arrest. Police have informed Qin's father that his trial will begin in three months; He, who marches daily to the police station to ask for news of her husband, has heard nothing of his fate. Few of his supporters imagine it will entail a happy ending.