The death of Liu Xiaobo has emphasised how far President Xi Jinping has gone to crush all dissent, writes Stephen Vines
Something very strange happens when China appoints a new leader. Otherwise sensible people start predicting that the new man (it is always a man) will be more liberal than his predecessor or, if not exactly liberal, he will most certainly be pragmatic, and not allow ideology to get in the way of progress.
Predictions of this kind were made when Xi Jinping was anointed as the Chinese Communist Party’s leader in 2012. But the death in July of China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence for ‘subversion’, has shown how wide of the mark such expectations were.
Xi’s accession to leadership of the Communist Party came three years after Liu was jailed on subversion charges – essentially urging China to adhere to its own constitution – and two years after the dissident became a Nobel laureate. When he was imprisoned Liu was prominent in Chinese opposition circles, but the Nobel prize turned him into an internationally-known prisoner of conscience.
Liu’s poor health, almost certainly exacerbated by a harsh penal regime, deteriorated at great speed this year. When the Chinese authorities realised that the country’s most famous dissident was likely to die in jail, a major propaganda effort was launched to show the ‘compassion’ of officials. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, who has herself been under unofficial house arrest for nearly seven years and has suffered depression as a result, was allowed to go the hospital where her husband lay dying of cancer.
In a macabre farce, two foreign doctors were summoned to examine the patient, in front of a crowd of local medical staff and officials. Without their knowledge the visit was filmed, their remarks were carefully edited and the tape was leaked to the media. Propaganda photographs were circulated, showing Liu Xia at her husband’s funeral and during the scattering of his cremated remains at sea, after which she disappeared, amid speculation that she had been forcibly removed to Yunnan, in China’s far south-west, to keep her out of circulation.
The authorities did not stop there in their propaganda efforts. Liu’s brother was forced to make a televised statement thanking the Communist Party for his brother’s treatment, reminding older members of the dissident community of the Cultural Revolution, when ‘self-criticism’ was the order of the day, and relatives of executed ‘traitors’ had to come forward to pay for the fatal bullet.
Xi Jinping knows about the Cultural Revolution at first hand: he witnessed the denunciations of his father, Xi Zhongxun, a very senior party member, and was himself sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’. But Xi senior survived, and re-emerged as a close ally of China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. His son steadily made his way up the ladder in various regional posts before landing back in Beijing. He is the first of the Communist ‘princelings’ to have made it to the very top.
Xi’s intimate knowledge of the way the party works, and the threats it faces, has led him to prioritise the elimination of the opposition. Unlike his predecessor, Hu Jintao, under whose watch Liu was jailed, Xi took the view that waiting for ‘big fish’ to emerge, and then quashing them, was a poor strategy. Instead, opposition had to be strangled at birth.
Within a year of assuming office, the Xi regime moved against the New Citizens Movement, composed largely of intellectuals. The authorities busied themselves compiling lists of dissidents for arrest; two years later, more than 300 lawyers who had been courageous enough to defend the victims of this purge were also arrested.
At the same time, but out of sight, precisely because the authorities went that extra mile to suppress the news, there was a widespread outbreak of small village and township level protests over largely local issues. The most famous of these was at a fishing village called Wukan, where it appeared that the entire population had risen against the local government. At first this protest, one of the few to gain international attention, was handled with kid gloves. But once the spotlight faded, leaders of the revolt were hustled off to jail.
Xi’s crackdown even reached to Hong Kong, especially after the 2014 Umbrella Movement led to the centre of the city being occupied by hundreds of thousands of protesters for more than two months. An unprecedented volume of legal action against protest leaders followed as mainland officials started to micro-manage the work of the supposedly autonomous Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong remains an international city, and no action could be taken without the glare of publicity. But far less light fell on the sweeping introduction of new laws and regulations to control civil society on the mainland. The National Security Law was beefed up; new laws on counter-terrorism and espionage were introduced with a scope more than wide enough to embrace any forms of protest or dissent. The work of foreign-based non-governmental organisations, or NGOs, has also been severely circumscribed, in line with an almost paranoid belief that they are working to undermine the Communist Party.
China’s infamous Great Firewall was strengthened, imposing even greater control over the internet. Various technological means of circumventing the restrictions have gradually been curbed – most recently, China succeeded in blocking WhatsApp, whose end-to-end encryption afforded privacy to its users. Even pictures of the Disney cartoon version of Winnie the Pooh have been suppressed, because online satirists reckon he looks like Xi.
The official media, and other media outlets subject to the state licensing system, found that the party minders who oversee their work were that bit more diligent in exercising control, while newspaper and television programme editors were frequently summoned to meetings to be reminded of their ‘patriotic duty’ to ensure that all news serves the people.
Even the world of entertainment has not been spared the attention of the party bosses. In July television stations were ordered to remove all foreign programming from their broadcasts, even if they were as innocuous as Graham Norton’s showbiz chat show on the BBC. The clampdown appeared to be in preparation for the 19th Communist Party Congress in the autumn, a time when more or less everything is considered to be sensitive.
Despite calls from the likes of Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for Liu Xiaobo’s widow to be given her freedom, Xi Jinping’s regime is satisfied that it no longer faces real international pressure over its treatment of dissidents. Britain is among countries more heavily focused on trade opportunities, while the Trump administration has made it crystal clear that human rights is very low on its list of priorities. Beijing even ended its boycott of all things Norwegian, imposed as retaliation for the Nobel Prize, after the Oslo government displayed what was seen as sufficient contrition.
So the stage is set for a party congress at which Xi’s already impressive domination of the Communist apparatus is to be consolidated, and all background noise from dissidents stifled, if not completely eliminated. Even if more Chinese learn of the enormous price Liu Xiaobo paid for his defiance, Xi can ask how many of them would be willing to emulate him.