At Beijing’s prestigious Peking University is a long, unassuming stretch of freestanding information boards that has become one of the most heavily monitored areas on campus. At least five security cameras are trained on the boards and a security guard sits opposite keeping watch.
The intensity of surveillance in this quiet corner of the campus is a reminder of how little has changed in the 29 years since the democracy protests in Tiananmen Square that ended with the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters in Beijing.
The boards became a beacon for those seeking greater democracy during that time when students hung “big character” posters demanding political change. This year, they became the venue for new protests when feminist activists stuck posters of their own over the signboards to protest against decades of university inaction on alleged sexual assault cases. Their action prompted the installation of two extra security cameras.
After confronting what it considered an existential threat to its rule, China’s ruling Communist party has spent the intervening decades cementing near absolute control over all aspects of governance.
“We are even farther from democracy today than we were in 1989,” said Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese rights lawyer in exile. “That a nonviolent democratic movement was suppressed by tanks and guns and ended in a tragic massacre had big influence on the economy and markets, but the political system did not develop in tandem.”
Protest posters calling for action on historical assault cases at Peking University were quickly removed by authorities but circulated on social media
Since Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, China has arrested and tried hundreds of human rights lawyers while detaining hundreds of thousands of the Muslim Uighur ethnic group in the western region of Xinjiang. In March, China removed presidential term limits, allowing President Xi, who jointly rules as Communist party secretary, to remain head of state for life if he so chooses.
“The intelligentsia are more useless than ever. Many of my friends had hopes that the nature of the [Communist] party would evolve over time, but that hope is gone now,” said a writer and artist who attended a secret service commemorating dissident writer Liu Xiaobo last year. The poet Liu Xia, Mr Liu’s wife, has been under house arrest since her husband’s death, despite repeated calls from foreign diplomats to grant her political asylum abroad.
Others say they would have left China altogether, having endured decades of political repression, if it were not for their love for their homeland.
“I was only one year away from qualifying for a green card but decided to let my [American] visa expire at the last minute,” said the owner of a Beijing art gallery, whose landowning family was persecuted when the Communist party came to power in 1949. “It was one of the hardest decisions I have made but China is my country.”
Party control has been particularly strong at Beijing’s top universities, from which the party’s top leaders are selected. Peking University, historically a hotbed of political debate and activism, is now one of the most closely scrutinised institutions in the country, as the party clamps down on educational institutions.
They have chosen to remain anonymous because they fear reprisals against themselves and their families back in mainland China, and say they are the victims of daily cyber attacks intended to ferret out their identities and those communicating with them: “We no longer have any meaningful political discussion on [Chinese] campuses. Each word we say online is under careful scrutiny, by ourselves and censors.”
The ever-higher personal cost of speaking out in mainland China has made grassroots activism all but impossible, even on issues with wide public support. In April, for example, Yue Xin, one of the student activists calling for Peking University to disclose information on historical sexual assault cases, was removed from campus and placed under house arrest. Attempts to contact her for this article were unsuccessful.
Chinese activists at home and abroad say they have not given up but are girding themselves for a long stretch of even harder times ahead. Said the student behind the #NotMyPresident campaign: “Thirty years after the man stepped in front of the long stream of tanks, we still find ourselves in a difficult situation.”
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