China's Communist rulers are ringing out December in a flurry of paranoia and repression, a fitting coda to a year of steadily decreasing tolerance for open dissent and discussion.
On Friday, authorities sentenced Chen Wei to nine years in prison. Chen's “crime was heinous, and influence vile,” the judge declared. And what was his crime? Writing essays. Because he advocated democracy — and has done so since he was first imprisoned for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 — a judge found Chen guilty of “inciting subversion.”
On Monday another dissident writer, Chen Xi, was sentenced to 10 years, also for “incitement.” His crime: 36 essays that he wrote and posted online.
These sentences would have been considered unusually long until recently, but in the current crackdown the regime has sentenced Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo to 11 years and Liu Xianbin to 10 years. Their crimes also consisted of writing.
China's Communist rulers do not feel compelled to account for their actions, so the motivation for the crackdown is a subject of speculation. Most China-watchers believe the authorities have been spooked by the popular uprisings in the Middle East. They may also be more nervous than usual as they prepare for an equally opaque leadership change next year. A top security official reportedly said that crackdowns on “hostile forces” (government code for peaceful advocates of democracy) and “illegal religious organizations” (code for Christians, Falun Gong followers and others who choose to worship without government approval) will be a priority in the coming year.
The human rights crackdown has drawn relatively little attention or condemnation from the West. Perhaps this is because the allure of Chinese investment and the Chinese market is too strong. Perhaps the crackdown seems so out of keeping with popular images of bustling, modern, capitalist Shanghai that outsiders have a hard time believing it is going on.
But those who think the anxieties of China's rulers are irrelevant to its foreign relations would do well to read a Dec. 25 account by Washington Post correspondent Andrew Higgins about official attacks against U.S. ambassadors to China and, most recently and most personally, against the U.S. consul to Hong Kong, Stephen Young, whose transgression was to ignore “solemn warnings” to keep mum about democracy. The gibes are a reminder that China's rulers, to bolster their position without the legitimacy of popular election, are quick not only to imprison their countrymen and censor their press but also, when convenient, to stoke the fires of nationalism.