Civil society dream turns sour under Xi

By Carol Huang ,AFP

BEIJING — Activists, lawyers, journalists, bloggers, professors — China’s new leaders have taken aim at civil society in what analysts call an effort to muffle dissent that is proving powerfully effective. The ruling Communist Party has long maintained tight control, nipping in the bud any public outcries or organized efforts that might snowball into “social unrest” that challenges its hegemony. But experts see a renewed drive under Xi Jinping, who took over as party chief in late 2012 and as state president in early 2013, and has since consolidated power and advanced an ambitious agenda including restructuring the economy. In the latest example, seven activists were charged in Henan province last week with the vague offence of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” after they held a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, rights groups said. “It’s a general intolerance for dissent, a general intolerance for civil society’s development. The whole approach is to concentrate power to promote economic reforms, to emphasize stability,” said Joseph Cheng, a China politics expert at City University of Hong Kong. One tactic was “to generate deterrence through heavy penalties,” he said. “I have to admit these messages tend to be effective.” About a dozen rights activists and lawyers have been jailed on convictions ranging from the less serious — such as disrupting public order — to the grave “inciting subversion of state power,” for which 2010 Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Many more wait in detention. Chinese journalists, already barred from publishing stories on sensitive topics, were last month “prohibited from engaging in critical reporting unless they have received the approval of the work unit” by the state media body. Social networks have become popular alternative information sources to state-controlled news outlets. But users felt the chilling effects last September after the Supreme Court warned of three years’ prison for anyone spreading “slanderous” information that was forwarded more than 500 times or viewed on more than 5,000 occasions. Reinforcing that threat, around that time influential Chinese bloggers were paraded on state television pledging to avoid posts that might have a “negative” social influence. Academics in May last year reportedly received a notice to avoid teaching seven taboo subjects — including universal values, press freedom, civil society and judicial independence.