By Calum MacLeod
BEIJING — For his role in galvanizing protests through a Facebook group, which earned him 12 days in police detention, Google executive Wael Ghonim became a hero of the Egyptian revolution.
In China, people such as Ghonim who challenge the state remain locked up for long terms, say human rights activists and analysts, who also say Beijing's intolerance of dissent and massive state security apparatus is being strengthened, not loosened.
China and other nations that restrict Internet freedom "will face a dictator's dilemma and will have to choose between letting the walls fall or paying the price to keep them standing," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said that such freedom already exists.
Chinese Internet users enjoy freedom of speech "in accordance with the law," Ma said Thursday.
For now, Beijing appears determined to pay the price to maintain "social stability," a dominant theme of the rule of Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Jintao. In 2010, the budget for domestic security jumped 9% to $75 billion, almost equaling the national defense budget, a Tsinghua University report said.
The swelling funds pay for "the world's most extensive Internet police and censorship architecture," plus more old-fashioned methods of repression, says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Human Rights Watch. In China, the successful, Internet-aided uprising by Egyptian protesters "will reinforce the conviction that any challenge has to be immediately answered and nipped in the bud," he says.
Addressing human rights abuses in China, Clinton last month pressed Beijing to stop harassing activists such as Chen Guangcheng, who are "persecuted even after they are released," she said in a speech before Hu Jintao's state visit to the USA.
Events in recent days suggest her call is being ignored. A blind, self-taught lawyer, Chen was released after a four-year jail term in September but remains under house arrest in Shandong province. In a video smuggled out and released last week, Chen described the "hooligan methods" of local authorities to keep him and his family isolated from the world. Both Chen and his wife were beaten after the video surfaced, reported Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a Hong Kong-based group.
On Wednesday, Beijing police beat civil rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, and abducted fellow lawyer Tang Jitian, after they attended a meeting of rights lawyers to discuss Chen's plight, Jiang said.
"The security pressure on rights defenders grows ever more intense," he said.
Several foreign journalists, including CNN's Stan Grant, were recently harassed by "plainclothes thugs" blockading Chen's village, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said.
The "deployment of resources on individual activists is unprecedented," Bequelin says. Chen's illegal detention, like that of the wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, shows that China "is retreating from any pretence that it is operating according to the rule of law," he says.
The persecution of activists is the most clandestine and political agenda of China's Office of Maintaining Stability. The nationwide network, headed by the Communist Party's Central Committee, has its fingers in multiple government agencies including the police, judiciary and propaganda departments.
Its primary work involves tackling social conflicts, arising from land requisition, demolition, wages owed to migrant workers and labor rights, the Tsinghua University report said. Researched by a team of sociologists led by Sun Liping, the report verified 24-hour surveillance of potential "troublemakers," and warned about the costs of the government's rigid approach.
"Blindly preventing the expression of legitimate interests in the name of stability will only accumulate contradictions and render society even more unstable," it said.
"Compared with China, the Egyptian government is not that strict, and does not control people like China does," says activist Wan Yanhai, a veteran campaigner for the rights of Chinese living with AIDS.
The online leak last month of police documents from one province, Zhejiang, revealed the workings of a monitoring system of "crucial persons" that Wan estimates targets 10 million Chinese nationwide, including released criminals, registered drug users, petitioners and rights defenders such as lawyer Chen.
The Chinese government must "find a way to strategically engage with people instead of targeting them," he says.
Wan, who left China for the USA last year after "repeated, multiagency harassment" against him and his non-profit group, Aizhixing, says democracy activists want change but not in a revolutionary way.
Safeguarding citizens' constitutional rights is the best guarantee of stability, says rural affairs expert Yu Jianrong.
"In 2010, stability was often maintained through the use of force," he wrote last month in a commentary published by Caixin media, because officials focus on managing unrest instead of prevention. But these tough, short-term tactics are "tantamount to drinking poison to quench one's thirst," said Yu, a government-salaried professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Don't expect change anytime soon, cautions Russell Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst.
"The focus on stability is driven in large part by what has worked," he says. "It's a very practical and potent leadership, it doesn't argue about ideology very much, though the next leadership might," Moses says.
Further delay on political reform could prove costly, Chen Guangcheng warns.
"If a society is not built on the foundation of fairness and justice, it will not gain long-lasting stability. ... Violence will only maintain short-term stability," he said in the video recorded under house arrest.