China suppresses dissidents
One of the main concerns of China’s one-party state is dissidence against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its spread in society. Ever since Tiananmen Square in 1989, the CCP has ensured that dissidents have remained under control & criticism restrained. If things go out of control, the party purges such elements without too much fuss. Many dissidents have settled abroad, even as a number of dissidents like Xu Zhangrun have run the gauntlet inside China, knowing fully well that they run the risk of being targeted by the Chinese state. There are hundreds of dissidents, including Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo, Wu Lebao etc. whose name and works can’t be used in China or even in overseas publications.
In late 2019, the CCP removed the phrase “freedom of thought” from the charters of several major universities, replacing it with language which insisted upon allegiance to the party. Xu Zhangrun, who worked at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, is perhaps today recognized as one of the leading voices of dissent in China, heavily criticizing the CCP and President Xi Jinping. Xu wrote knowing fully well that at some point in time, the State apparatus would come knocking on his door. Ironically, when the police came to arrest him, the charges pressed did not speak of his writings or criticism of President Xi. Instead, he was reportedly accused of soliciting prostitutes—a charge commonly trumped-up against dissidents in China and one that Xu himself had previously warned would be used.
Cai Xia, is a party insider who recently (August 2020) was expelled from the CCP for her comments on social media on President Xi. Based in the US since last year, Cai Xia is a second generation communist whose parents had fought in the Communist revolution in 1949. She retired from the CCP’s Central Party School where she had been teaching politics to party members who were being groomed for higher leadership. The Central Party School is an important part of the CCP’s organization and it was led by Mao Zedong in the early days. Both Cai Xia and Xu Zhangrun are insiders, though Cai was a deeper part of the system and her criticism of Xi is far more strident. In fact, her comments on Xi are even being seen as a sign of the waning power of Xi and his CCP colleagues within China. In an interview to the Guardian newspaper (June 2020), Cai accused President Xi of making “the world an enemy” of China, and said he wanted to “consolidate his own position and authority.” Her analysis of recent developments is that “Considering domestic economic and social tensions, as well as those in the party of the last few years, (Xi) will think of ways to divert the attention of the Chinese public, provoking conflict with other countries, for example encouraging anti-American sentiment and the recent clash between China and India,” Cai said.
The issue of dissidence in China and actions against them extends not only to Chinese citizens who criticize the CCP or President Xi. Ethnic minorities in China including Tibetans and Uyghurs are also classified as ‘separatists’. Many overseas Chinese who have fled to democratic nations are also silenced by state with action against their families who are still in China. For instance, Liu Xia, wife of Nobel Prize winning activist Liu Xiabao, was placed under house arrest with 24-hour surveillance when she tried to travel to Oslo to accept the Nobel peace prize on behalf of her husband. More recently, when the coronavirus pandemic hit Wuhan, a number of voices came up against the Chinese system and its failure to control the spread of the virus. One of them was Fang Fang who wrote the “Wuhan Diary”. She was not the only one to vocalise the feeling that the Chinese state had failed in its main task of looking after the Chinese people. There were others who went on social media, while still others like Ren Zhiqiang, a business tycoon and a CCP member, openly criticized Xi. He ridiculed the Party’s unconditional endorsement of Xi’s successful leadership in a National Party Conference on 23 February, in these words: “Standing there was not some Emperor showing us his new clothes, but a clown with no clothes on who is still determined to play Emperor.” Ren has since disappeared.
Even as episodes of public outrage are not uncommon in China, criticism of the political system, which has become even more centralised under Xi Jinping, is rare. The first three months of 2020, however, witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of anti-Xi/CCP sentiment. Zhou Xueguang, a Professor at Standford University, aptly summed up the situation in an interview, “This (handling of the coronavirus pandemic) is not only an outbreak of a novel virus; it’s also a manifestation of the breakdown of China’s governance structures,” he said.
The Human Rights Watch 2020 Report summarizes the Chinese State’s response to criticism from dissidents by noting that it has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. China also uses its growing economic clout to silence critics (as in the case of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang) and carries out an intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights.
There is an increasing wave of voices that are pressing the CCP to remove President Xi from power. There is a clear signal here that President Xi is under pressure from his own people. While Xi projects that his position is fairly strong and comfortable, he faces an uncertain future with the economy showing serious slowdown. Seen in this context, the voices of dissent in China, be it mainstream or otherwise are pointing to the increasing centralization seen under Xi as a symbol of the insecurity that plagues China. Centralization driven by the use of technology to keep track of its citizens is therefore, the new mantra of the Chinese state and this will only intensify as President Xi struggles to keep his hold on power.