Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China has followed an erratic course of loosening controls followed by periods of intense repression. While personal freedoms have, in general, greatly improved over the past 30 years, the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the PRC tomorrow has been one of the darker periods of recent times, with restrictions tightened across a range of fronts including the media, internet and legal profession.
On the ground, Beijing has experienced an extraordinary increase in security measures this month, aspects of which have entered the realm of the ridiculous. Soldiers and armed police have been prominent throughout south Beijing for weeks. On Friday 18 September, businesses across much of they city’s CBD were ordered to close as rehearsals proceeded for the grand military parade planned for 1 October. Among other restrictions, workers and residents in the area were instructed — in writing — not to open or look out of their windows. Kite and pigeon flying have also been banned in the capital — with residents encouraged to tell the police if they see any suspicious flying objects.
Residents in zones around the parade route have had to obtain special permits to reach their homes from 30 September to 2 October. One friend was away when permits were issued; he was subsequently informed he would have to live somewhere else during the days in question. Guests are not permitted to stay in private homes near the parade route during the "celebration" period, and apartments in the area vacated for the holiday must be inspected by the Public Security Bureau before residents leave. In any case, Beijingers will have trouble leaving the city on 1 October, as the city’s sole airport has been ordered to close from 9:30am to 12:30pm.
At a national level, a tight leash has been kept on media discussions of the 60th anniversary. Much like the coverage of the 30th anniversary of "Reform and Opening Up" last year, print and broadcast outlets have been instructed not to mention "sensitive" aspects of PRC history — shorthand for anything that casts the Communist Party in a remotely negative light. Emphasis has been placed on the country’s growing strength under the stewardship of its communist leaders.
More surprising has been the Chinese Government’s increasingly brazen attempts to stymie voices questioning their version of history outside China’s borders. The Melbourne International Film Festival bore the brunt of one of these attacks in July, when the local Chinese consulate demanded festival director Richard Moore withdraw the documentary The 10 Conditions of Love from his program. After Moore refused to comply and alerted the press to the incident, all Chinese films were pulled from the festival.
The 10 Conditions of Love is about exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer, whose native province of Xinjiang in China’s far west was wracked by murderous ethnic violence in July. The region has long been characterised by tensions between Han Chinese and the indigenous Uyghur population, but like the Dalai Lama and Tibet, Kadeer is routinely blamed by the Chinese Government for any social unrest in the area.
Taiwan has also come under pressure from Beijing in recent weeks after the Kaohsiung Film Festival included The 10 Conditions of Love in its program. Organisers eventually decided to screen the film ahead of the festival in an attempt to diffuse the controversy. On 27 September, the English-language edition of the nationalistic mainland newspaper Global Times reported Taiwanese authorities had refused Kadeer a visa for the island, noting "Analysts said the move shows that Taiwan has ‘learned its lesson’ after inviting the Dalai Lama into Taiwan and screening a documentary about Kadeer earlier this month".
In a rare attempt to interfere with publishing in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, Beijing recently attempted to prevent the publication of Xiao Jiansheng’s book Chinese History Revisited, a work effectively banned on the mainland two years ago. Although publication went ahead, the incident marks a shift from what has generally been a "hands off" policy in regards to media and publishing in the SAR.
Beijing’s attempts to impose its censorship regime outside mainland China may have met with mixed results; more successful has been a relentless tightening of internet restrictions within the PRC. Access to YouTube has always been an on-again off-again affair in China, but after a long stretch of availability in 2008 and early 2009, the site was blocked again in March. The ban is said to have been provoked by the presence of a video showing Tibetan monks being beaten by Chinese police.
Similarly, Facebook and Twitter were blocked in July after the sites were allegedly utilised by anti-government forces during the unrest in Xinjiang. Danwei, an English-language site that translates Chinese news and collates commentary on China from around the world, was blocked the same month. Numerous blogging sites are also now inaccessible.
Less usual than intensifying censorship before an important anniversary is the current crackdown on the country’s legal profession. According to Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center, 73 lawyers who participated in controversial cases have been disbarred since May.
The most prominent victim in the campaign against troublesome legal professionals has been Xu Zhiyong. Xu’s Gongmeng legal aid organisation has been involved in a number of high profile actions, including an attempt to win compensation for those poisoned by melamine-tainted milk and baby formula produced by major Chinese dairy firms last year. Gongmeng was shut on 17 July for alleged tax irregularities, followed by Xu’s arbitrary dawn arrest on 29 July.
Xu Zhiyong is a well-known figure in China and a member of the Beijing People’s Congress. His stated aim is to strengthen the rule of law in the People’s Republic — an objective supposedly shared by the central government. His detention garnered considerable attention both in and outside China, and he was finally released on 23 August. Despite this concession, the message is clear — elements within the central government appear determined to stymie efforts to enforce Chinese laws that threaten the political and economic interests of the state and large companies.
The moves against legal professionals have provoked speculation about whether China is witnessing more than just a routine tightening in the lead up to an important anniversary. In a blog post last month, Rebecca MacKinnon carried an ominous quote from PRC legal expert Jerome Cohen: "What we are witnessing now is a systematic campaign unparalleled since the beginning of the Open Policy in 1978. It has nothing to do with the 60th celebration. Are there still people who believe that such policies and practices can be explained because of the approach of one or another of China’s many anniversaries?"
It remains to be seen whether Cohen is right or if conditions will ease following 1 October. Less in doubt is the Chinese Government’s ongoing attitude towards its own people. The measures imposed to ensure ordinary citizens are prevented from watching — let alone participating in — the National Day parade are a graphic illustration of the profound distrust with which the "People’s Government" regards the population it claims to represent.
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