China cracks down on dissent

Events in the Middle East are reverberating throughout the world, but no government is as committed to squashing domestic protests as is the leadership in Beijing. The government there has begun a crackdown against liberal voices in China. This seems to be a systematic effort that includes control of communications, beefing up internal security, arrest and prosecution of progressives, and even extralegal mechanisms.

We say “seems” because the Chinese government claims to have no hand in recent events. China’s lack of transparency provides deniability, but there is no mistaking Beijing’s concern about stability and maintaining social harmony, no matter what the cost.

“Social management” has been identified as a top priority at meetings of senior national and provincial leaders. At the recently concluded National People’s Congress, the Chinese government unveiled the 12th Five Year Blueprint on Economic and Social Development. This document focuses on public security, in particular containing and reducing the tens of thousands of mass-demonstration incidents that now occur in China each year. The Chinese plan includes measures that range from increasing the number of “volunteers” who will keep an eye out for and respond to unrest to beefing up the budget for public security forces. For the first time, the official budget this year spends more money on public security ($95 billion) than the People’s Liberation Army ($92 billion).

Spurred by fears of a “Jasmine Revolution” at home, Chinese officials have stepped up monitoring of the Internet, reportedly even banning the use of words like “Egypt” and “Jasmine” in search engines. Google has claimed that the e-mail accounts of human rights activists and dissidents have been hacked, a charge that government officials have said is “unacceptable.” At a minimum, access to Google’s Gmail website has been slowed, as has access to virtual private networks (VPNs) that are often used to get around the Great Firewall of China. Human rights watchers accuse Beijing of specifically targeting communications of human rights activists.

In February, a Chinese-language website based in the United States called on Chinese to gather in the streets to protest the government’s authoritarianism. The result has been overkill. Taking no risks, the government has ensured that no large groups of Chinese can gather spontaneously: There invariably are more security forces — usually in plain clothes — than ordinary citizens.

More ominously, there has been a crackdown on dissidents and liberals. By one estimate, at least 23 people were detained for criminal investigations in March. Another list identifies more than 50 individuals who were arrested or “disappeared” the same month; still more are under house arrest. In recent weeks, three high-profile dissidents have been charged with inciting subversion. Last month, Mr. Liu Xianbin a veteran democracy activist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for slandering the Communist Party.

Adding credibility to the accusations against Beijing was a report issued in March by the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention that demanded the immediate release of Mr. Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer who has been detained for almost a year. Mr. Gao has been officially arrested twice before and he accused the government of torturing him while being held. Two weeks after his last release — in March 2010 — he disappeared and has not been heard from since. The U.N. Working Group demands not only his release but the payment of reparations. Again, the Chinese government has dismissed the call, telling the critics to respect its judicial sovereignty.

The Beijing government’s concern is palpable. While the quality of millions of Chinese lives is improving each year, expectations are still rising faster than reality. The corruption that stains Chinese society compounds the anger at growing levels of inequality that rival or exceed those in the most developed countries. The Chinese Communist Party is well aware of the tensions within the country, but the structure of a one-party state precludes any comprehensive solution.

Instead, the government cracks down on speech and dissent. Unfortunately for Beijing, this step only increases domestic tensions. China has the largest Internet population in the world, estimated at over 450 million people. Monitoring and controlling all their communications — not only computers but telephones and microblogs as well — is a Herculean task.

Worse, it is putting the business community on edge as well. Reliable and secure communications are critical to business success. Chinese attempts to control the Internet could alienate the businesses that are driving its economic growth and providing the ruling party’s legitimacy. They reflect a shortsighted strategy that is increasing antagonism and creating more enemies.