June 4th has passed, but the arrests continue, and every day brings bad news from China. While scholar Xu Youyu, artist Chen Guang and others have been released “on probation,” many are still being held and others have been formally arrested, including Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏) and two others in Zhengzhou, Henan, and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) in Beijing. On June 20 in Guangzhou, lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and activists Wang Qingying (王清营) and Yuan Xinting (袁新亭) were formally arrested on subversion charges. Earlier this week, three New Citizens Movement participants Liu Ping (刘萍), Wei Zhongping (魏忠平) and Li Sihua (李思华) were harshly sentenced for fictitious “crimes.”
Some people explain these arrests as an increase in stability maintenance before the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th. Others explain the arrests as the misuse of police power by the political and legal systems and a loss of control over the police forces. Still others explain them as the result of factional infighting among the Central leadership. I’m afraid all these explanations are wrong.
This wave of large scale repression of civil society did not start with the arrest of the “Five for Commemorating June 4th on May 3rd,” but rather, it started last year with the arrest of the “Beijing Xidan Four.” On March 31, 2013, Yuan Zhong (袁冬), Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), and two others gave a speech at Beijing Xidan in which they called on government officials to make public their property holdings. They were arrested on the spot. This was the official prelude to the authorities’ repression of the New Citizens Movement and the civil society. Within a year, throughout China no fewer than two hundred human rights activists were arrested and incarcerated. These included: Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Wang Gongquan (王功权), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Li Huaping (李化平), Chen Baocheng (陈宝成), Zhang Lin (张林), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Liu Ping (刘萍), Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), Ilham Tothi (伊力哈木), and others. Among these human rights activists, the authorities tortured to death the noted activist Cao Shunli (曹顺利). Suppression has increased markedly not only against human rights activists but also against dissidents, underground churches, Falun Gong adherents, petitioners, activist netizens, and liberal scholars. Meanwhile we have been witnessing a marked tightening of information dissemination and ideological control.
Although this wave of repression did not take the same form as the repression during the period of the “Jasmine Revolution” in the spring of 2011, a period of repression that saw kidnappings, secret detentions, and torture (all of which are an escalation of stability maintenance under a state of emergency), it surpasses that of the Jasmine Revolution in duration, scope, number of people arrested, and the severity of punishments.
It is clear that, after Xi Jinping assumed power, he has been trying to change the mode for dealing with civil society. We can consider the incident of the “Beijing Xidan Four” in 2013 as the beginning of this shift. The authorities, in the process of cracking down, collected information, watched for reactions to the process, accumulated experience, and continued to deepen and strengthen this new mode for dealing with civil society. We could call this “a shift from surveillance mode to elimination mode.”
This new mode is not an emergency response and not directed at individual incidents. No, this new mode is planned and undertaken step by step. It is not aimed at specific individuals, but rather at the whole of civil society. Previously, they arrested those who crossed red lines, stood out, took street actions, or appeared to be organized, and so on. Now, however, the authorities are making a clean sweep of all of civil society. Those who are active, influential, or action-oriented probably have their names on a list of people to be arrested. A certain person arrested during a given incident does not necessarily mean that this person was arrested because of the incident. Arrest is just an excuse, an opportunity to settle old scores, to have a reckoning.
Before, the goal was primarily to punish those who crossed the line, and to retain the advantages of strong stability maintenance. Now, however, the goal is simultaneously to eliminate the nodes of civil mobilization, eradicate emerging civil leaders, and disperse the capacity for civil resistance. From the spring of last year until the present, we can see from the large scale of the arrests and the fierceness of the crackdown that the intent of the authorities is the total elimination of civil resistance. At a minimum, the authorities want to curb the momentum of the last ten years in which civil society has been quietly but steadily growing and flourishing.
Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev. He is a Maoist. From his position as a member of the “Princelings’ Party,” from his educational experiences, his schooling in the Party’s culture, and from the speeches he has made both before assuming power and since, we can see that there is no such thing as “democracy” or “constitution” in his mindset. Through speeches and official documents, suchas “no exporting of revolution,”¹ the “two periods that cannot be used to negate each other,”² the “seven don’t mentions,”³ “Document No. 9,”⁴ the “August 19th speech,”⁵ and political moves such as Mao worship on December 26, 2013, and the formation of the National Security Committee, the Party Secretary has been rattling his sabers. And no more harboring illusions on the part of the public intellectuals.
The discerning magazine, the Economist, put Xi Jinping on the cover wearing emperor’s robes. Compared to Mao’s power, however, imperial power was negligible. Maoism, the one party system, an eternally red China – these are the “universal truths” to which Xi adheres. In fact, the differences between Hu Jintao’s way of thinking and Xi Jinping’s are not that great, but Xi is more motivated, more forceful,more confident with fewer constraints. Xi flaunts his power in the “five black categories” (human rights lawyers, underground religion, dissidents, internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups), and has gone after them with real weapons. Even more importantly, in the eyes of the leaders of the party-state, if the regime does not align its forces against the civil power represented by the “five black categories,” and does not use “unconventional deterrence” against these opposition forces to deal them a devastating blow, then these forces will be a “real and imminent danger” threatening the party’s political power and interests (or the so-called “interests of the people and social stability”).
China’s civil society, however, has already developed the basis on which to repair itself and to grow steadily. On the one hand, there is development in China’s internet, marketization, globalization, legalization, and civil consciousness, as well as an accumulation of social movements. On the other hand, the present regime lacks legitimacy, the present political system continuously violates civil rights, and continuously creates contradictions and conflicts, while the present ideology continues to lose its hold on people, the ecological environment continues to deteriorate, and the present development model continues to show cracks. Against this larger social and economic context, the upward trend of civil society and liberal democratic force is all but impossible to stop by the will of a few individuals.
Invariably, this process will be tortuous, frustrating, with low points and sacrifices. Even more people will have to pay a heartbreaking price. The bad news will continue to come. The context of the times and the society described above, however, is both the reason that the authorities have shifted their mode of suppression and also the reason that the new mode of suppression in the end cannot achieve its purpose.