Kerry Brown: China’s Shadow Sector: Power in Pieces

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (2009). He writes on the

I spent the month of August 2009 travelling around China and looking at the state of democracy (in the sense of “village elections”), the rule of law, and civil society. It was a sobering experience full of disturbing revelations.

There was an auspicious moment on the very day of my arrival, when Xu Zhiyong – who heads Gongmeng (Open Constitution Initiative), a small legal-aid NGO – was detained for “non-payment of taxes” (the grey zone in which independent NGOs exist in China means that this charge is often a convenient pretext for official persecution). Xu Zhiyong was released on 23 August, but may still face prosecution. The pattern of harassment is consistent: on 12 August a court case involving the environmental activist Tan Zuoren in the southwestern city of Chengdu was conducted so badly that his lawyer burst into tears.

Ai Weiwei – the designer of Beijing’s Olympic stadium (the “Bird’s Nest”) and one of China’s most prominent intellectuals – had travelled to Chengdu hoping to testify on Tan Zuoren’s behalf, but to no avail. There was a chilling sequel: Ai was rewarded for his efforts by having his hotel door hammered on in the middle of the night, then – when he opened it to see what was going on – being punched senseless.


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