Wednesday, September 7, 2016
China silences anti-corruption activists
BEIJING — A planned 208-story Sky City skyscraper in
Changsha is the latest grand example of the success the Communist Party has had in vaulting China in just three decades from widespread poverty into a global economic power.
But the arrest this month of an anti-corruption activist illustrates that however much China has developed economically, its rulers tightly restrict civil society and activist voices, even when they speak out in support of official government campaigns.
On Tuesday, the Peoples Republic of China, as it is known officially, announced new bans on spending by party officials whose near-unquestioned authority can decide the fate of developments, industries and ordinary citizens. In cracking down on lavish weddings and liquid lunches paid for with public money or private bribes, China announced that it has disciplined 2,290 officials this year in a campaign against corruption.
China's Party leader
Xi Jinping is headlining the nationwide crackdown on graft, but unmentioned are at least 16 people known to have been arrested or detained in recent months for their public advocacy of anti-corruption measures. Xu's and others' calls for party cadres to disclose their assets have only brought them grief.
Xu had been held under informal and illegal house arrest for the past three months. When Xu's lawyer
Liu Weiguo attempted to meet Xu, at a detention facility, Liu himself was detained for six hours.
"His detention is done to threaten Xu and citizens like him," says Liu. "The real reason is he fought corruption and wants public disclosure of cadres' assets."
Xu founded the New Citizens' Movement last year to encourage people to advocate for better rule of law and human rights in China. The other 15-plus detainees had responded to his call, and that's what scares Beijing, says Teng Biao, a legal scholar and fellow human rights activist.
"The authorities try to control every movement. The government is worried about any kind of organization, and especially people who protest in the streets," he says.
Despite multiple government crackdowns on corruption over many years, "under a one-party system, there's no way to solve the problem," says Teng, whose activism has led to his being banned, like Xu, from practicing as a lawyer in China, and from teaching at colleges.
"Dr. Xu and other citizens wanted to fight against corruption via civil society, but if civil society becomes powerful and influential, that will become a challenge for the authorities, and the top leaders will not tolerate it," he says.
Xu's arrest "shows the wide gap between official rhetoric on corruption and the actual practice on the ground," says Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher at
Human Rights Watch, a rights group headquartered in New York.
The willingness of New Citizens' Movement members to protest in the streets, and the resonance of their anti-corruption message with ordinary people, "makes the government very concerned the movement will grow out of hand, although it's very small now," she says.
"Freedoms of expression and assembly are not protected in China and there is no real rule of law," says Wang. "In its absence, I don't foresee that these campaigns of anti-corruption and government accountability are likely to be tolerated."
More than 1,000 Chinese citizens, including some well-known names, have rallied to Xu's cause by signing a public protest letter defending him and the New Citizens' Movement.
But that effort gains little exposure in China's highly censored system, unlike an opinion piece this month in the Party flagship
People's Daily newspaper, where economist Hu Angang argued that the "people's society" run by the Communist Party is superior to the West's civil society.
News of Xu's travails is quickly scrubbed from China's Internet. Most Chinese have never heard of him, nor China's
Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, a writer jailed for his dissent.
Xu's arrest shows "there's no hope to achieve legal democracy within this kind of system, it shows the limits of the work of civil society, and it's not possible for us to change the whole system with case-by-case work," says scholar Teng.
Yet he remains defiantly optimistic, "because the government is unable to prevent civil society from becoming stronger and stronger. More and more people are standing up for their rights, there is hope."
Despite the latest, ongoing round of persecution, "more and more docile subjects are awakening into citizens. ... This is the time when the Chinese nation will be reborn for freedom, justice and love," Xu wrote recently. "It is a new road, long and difficult, but it's the only road leading to a bright future."