Costs and Consequences of Stability Maintenance

At Foreign Policy, Hu Jia describes his detentions and the house arrests between them, and discusses the treatment of other Chinese activists over the past ten years:

[…L]et’s just look at what has happened since 2004, when Beijing amended the Chinese Constitution to add the phrase, “The Chinese government respects and protects human rights.” 2004 was the fifth anniversary of the suppression of practitioners of the spiritual movement Falun Gong and the 15th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese troops opened fire on unarmed protesters in the center of Beijing. That year, in the days leading up to the Tiananmen anniversary, I went to the square to present bouquets of flowers in memory of the victims. But police detained me. I told Yang Shun, a local officer in charge of Guobao, that my behavior was lawful and in accordance with the Constitution. He scoffed. “That was written to show the foreigners,” he told me.

[…] Will things get better? Some say they will improve because Zhou Yongkang, the former head of the Central Political and Legislative Affairs Committee (CPLC) and the official responsible for “security maintenance,” is now out of the picture. And many people praise Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown on Zhou and his allies.

But the National Security Commission that Xi established in November 2013 is really just a super CPLC. All this is a power struggle within the CCP – what the common people refer to as “dog bites dog.” After Xi eliminates his enemies in the CCP, he will be able to use all the resources at his disposal to move against dissidents. I believe that eventually, China will move in the direction of democracy. But in the meantime, the coldest winter for Chinese dissidents has not yet arrived. [Source]

Hu also points out the case of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who began campaigning for adherence to the constitution following the 2004 amendment. His efforts brought a string of detentions and a three year prison sentence for inciting subversion of state power, which ended this month. He is now under tight surveillance during a one-year “deprivation of political rights,” while prolonged solitary confinement in prison has reportedly made him incapable of coherent speech. At the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog, Jackie Sheehan describes these and earlier abuses, and writes that “the silencing of Gao Zhisheng is a warning to other lawyers and activists”:

Gao’s year of deprivation of rights could stretch into indefinite isolation, surveillance, and pressure to cooperate with the authorities. Inner Mongolian rights activist Hada, “released” from prison at the end of a fifteen-year sentence in December 2010, is still in a “black jail” in Hohhot, denied medical treatment for the severe depression and paranoia he has developed over 18 years of incarceration, but reportedly supplied with plenty of alcohol. His family are continually threatened over their “non-cooperation” and persistence in making Hada’s condition known outside China, using trumped-up drugs charges against his son and ever-tighter restrictions on his wife’s links with outside world.

So let’s not celebrate too soon the abolition, sort of, of re-education through labour, the banning, twice in one year, of interrogation through torture (it was already illegal), or even the reduced application of the death penalty in China, when activists like Gao and Hada can be so effectively destroyed without the need for lethal injection or a firing squad.

The focus of the next CCP plenum, to be held in October 2014, will be the rule of law in China. Perhaps, to paraphrase Gandhi on western civilization, party leaders will conclude that it would be a good idea. [Source]

Read more on prospects for progress on rule of law in light of the fall of Zhou Yongkang via CDT.

Gao’s case is extreme, but even ordinary citizens can find their lives overturned by the arbitrary and opaque consequences of government monitoring. At The New York Times, Murong Xuecun reports how he gained access to his own official personal file, and found it loaded with white lies by well-meaning teachers. But he cites other cases such as that of Tang Guoji, who was made unemployable by comments entered in apparent retaliation for complaints about teaching quality.

Now, with the advent of the Internet age, Beijing has new ways to control the populace. In May, the government announced it was rolling out a national social credit network. This will include a much more powerful personal file system, which, according to the People’s Daily, will collate information on every aspect of the life of every citizen, including records of online activities.

If the government deems a person’s activities “seriously untrustworthy,” his or her everyday life will be jeopardized. It is easy to envision a future where banks can cancel mortgages, the transport bureau can cancel drivers’ licenses, and hospitals can refuse treatment.

For the first half of my life a malevolent spirit in the form of a personal file envelope followed wherever I went, recording my every move, detailing every change in my circumstances. For the rest of my life, I will have an electronic file on me whose contents I may never see. No matter where I go this new file will be a burden that I will have to carry until my dying day. [Source]

At South China Morning Post, Dr Karen Lee of the Hong Kong Institute of Education writes that bribery of would-be petitioners—a reportedly innovative alternative to their detention and torture—has highlighted the mounting cost of all this stability maintenance machinery:

During the term of the now disgraced former security chief Zhou Yongkang from 2007 to 2012, “internal security” became the party’s top priority. Between 2010 and this year, public security spending rose nearly 70 per cent.

For years, the Ministry of Finance has listed “other public safety spending” in its public security budget alongside mundane items such as armed police and the judiciary. But this was absent in the latest budget, announced on March 25.

Authorities allegedly spent 9.5 million yuan (HK$11.6 million) a year during the 19-month house arrest of rights activist Chen Guangcheng , before his escape to the US embassy in Beijing in 2012. From security equipment to personnel, Chen’s detention “has become a lucrative industry” for his poor Shandong native village, The New York Times wrote. And we are talking about just one dissident.

Professor Ding Xueliang, in a 2012 article on the daily’s Chinese website, said stability maintenance was the “second worst” option. For all its social and human costs, its “only merit” lay in avoiding the full-fledged military action seen in June 1989, which was the worst option. The question is, besides the worst and the second worst, is there a better option? [Source]