Liu Xiaobo’s former comrades: Xi Jinping keeps hundreds in prison for peaceful dissent

July 15th 2017 | BEIJING

TO CHINA’s authorities, Liu Xiaobo was a common criminal who had been sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power”. In fact Mr Liu was no more common than he was a criminal. The only previous Nobel peace laureate to die upon release from prison was Carl von Ossietzky, who was awarded the prize in 1935 while in a Nazi concentration camp and succumbed to consumption. China’s equivalent of the Gestapo might not appreciate this parallel.

In a narrow sense of the term, however, Mr Liu was tragically all too common. He was the best-known of many hundreds of prisoners of conscience in China—people serving time for their political or religious beliefs. Mr Liu’s long ordeal is a reminder of what the Chinese state does to those who challenge it.

Secrecy, says Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International, an NGO, is paramount in China’s handling of dissidents: the government often treats details of their arrest and jailing as classified. But the Congressional-Executive Committee on China (CECC), a branch of the American government, has kept track of those prisoners whose names have entered the public domain, usually because their arrest has been announced.

The CECC’s database, based on work by Dui Hua, an NGO in San Francisco and the Tibet Information Network in London, had almost 8,500 names in October 2016. Of those, more than 1,400 people were still in prison. That gives a glimpse of the scale of repression. The real numbers are many times larger. In Xinjiang and Tibet, provinces in China’s far west, tens of thousands are thought to have been arrested over the past decade. Still, the CECC’s database is based on hard information. It suggests that over the past 30 years there have been four successive approaches to putting people away for peaceful dissent (see chart).

The Tiananmen surge

In the 1980s, before the protests, the CECC’s database records few political prisoners, who at that time were usually accused of being “counter-revolutionaries”. That may be because many arrests of such people were kept secret. After the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, far more cases became known—partly because of the scale of the crackdown, but also because families and friends of victims became more willing to risk publicising cases.

The second approach began around 1997 when new criminal laws abolished the crime of being a counter-revolutionary and made “incitement to subvert state power” an offence. This was the charge on which Mr Liu was arrested. Subverting state power became the party’s legal instrument of choice against dissidents accused of challenging its legitimacy.

During the early to mid-2000s arrests for political or religious crimes were running at around 150 a year. Many of those detained were members of Falun Gong, a spiritual sect viewed by the Communist Party as a threat to the state. Human-rights groups claim that more than 10,000 Falun Gong members were detained between 1999 and 2009, and that as many as one-fifth of them may have died in prison.

The third phase of repression began in the couple of years leading up to the Olympic games in 2008. At that time those who annoyed the party were more likely to be arrested not just for subversion, but also for the vaguer charge of threatening “maintenance of stability”. The party also started to use pettier charges, such as disturbing public order, against its critics. This stage coincided, in 2008, with an uprising in Tibet, resulting in almost 900 recorded political arrests that year—as many as in 1989, the year of Tiananmen. The number then fell, and has settled down at around 450 a year for the past six years, about three times the level of the 1990s.

To judge by the overall numbers, there has been little change since Xi Jinping became president in 2012. But in reality he has adopted yet another distinctive approach to repression. As Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch, an NGO, points out, he has passed half a dozen new bills that beef up the security services. They include laws on national security, cyber-security, counter-terrorism and NGOs. The effect has been to widen the number of charges available against the party’s critics and to lower the threshold of what is unacceptable (dodgy behaviour includes gathering outside courts during political trials, as one activist, Liu Chunxia, found to her cost in 2014—see picture).

New groups of people have become political prisoners under new charges. In the past two years, so-called “rights lawyers” who have sought to use the courts to defend those harshly treated by officials have been accused of subverting state power. So have NGOs campaigning against corruption or environmental degradation. In the mid-2000s almost all the reasons given for arrests in the CECC’s database fell into five categories, such as inciting ethnic tensions or being a member of Falun Gong. In 2016 and 2017, three-quarters of the arrests have been for other, often nebulous reasons, such as endangering national security.

The aim of Mr Xi’s repression, argues Amnesty’s Mr Bequelin, is no longer just to protect the party from challenge but also to control information. The party faces no direct challenge from political movements or organised ethnic groups. What worries its leaders more is that China’s many social problems might one day generate such a challenge. To prevent that happening they are arresting people who spread information about social problems or link up with like-minded groups in the country—even if, as is the case with anti-corruption NGOs, the party professes to share their concerns.

Mr Liu became a symbol of opposition to arbitrary power among a wide range of groups in China, not just Tiananmen-era dissidents. Perhaps, in Mr Xi’s eyes, that was his unforgivable offence.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline "Liu’s former comrades"

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