What’s fueling China’s aggressive crackdown on activism and media?

    The only thing China's Communist Party fears more than a failing economy is a unified rights movement challenging its failure to deliver economic benefits.

    Ilshat Hassan is a person not easily frightened.

    Chinese security forces have detained Hassan, an ethnic Uyghur from China’s troubled Xinjiang province, on multiple occasions. He’s been beaten in police custody and shocked with an electric cattle prod.

    In a particularly harrowing incident, he’s even had an assault rifle pointed at him by an agitated paramilitary officer.

    It was 1998, and Hassan was on a long-distance bus trip to visit his parents’ home in Xinjiang. In the middle of the night, during a particularly isolated stretch of the journey, the bus was stopped and boarded by armed security officials.

    All of the Uyghurs on board were ordered off the bus to the side of the road. After a tense standoff, he and his group were able to continue along their way. Still, the incident rattled him.

    “It was a difficult experience,” he recalled. “Because I’m Uyghur, I’m nothing to them. I’m nothing to [China], nothing to that system. They can throw me in the trash at any time, at any moment.”

    Although Hassan was shaken by the incident, he continued to agitate for the rights of his fellow Uyghurs, China’s beleaguered ethnic and religious minority. But today, nearly two decades later and living comfortably near Washington, D.C. — where he serves as the interim president of the Uyghur American Association — Hassan is more unsettled than ever by the Chinese authorities.

    An article that he recently wrote for a Mandarin-language website caught the eye of officials in Beijing. The piece was critical of the Chinese government, and in retaliation security officers arrested and detained Hassan’s sister in Xinjiang.

    She was eventually released, but — not surprisingly — Hassan is still concerned for his family’s safety should he again write something that runs afoul of China’s censors.

    Considering the current political and human rights landscape in China, Hassan — and many others — might have good reason to worry.

    A ferocity not seen in years

    Since coming to power in 2012, the Xi Jingping government has treated China’s 1.3 billion citizens to a grim buffet of unabashed authoritarianism. Security officials have limited Internet freedom, shut down magazines and websites, closely monitored social media, spied on university students and instructors, harassed religious worshippers, and — of course — arrested and detained hundreds of human rights lawyers and activists.

    The Chinese Communist Party’s robust efforts to check freedom of expression and personal liberties have not been conducted in secret. In fact, the United States, along with 11 other nations, recently issued a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council criticizing China’s rights record. Also, Human Rights Watch’s 2015 World Report notes that Chinese “authorities have unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in years.”

    Nevertheless, the situation over the last several months has only deteriorated.

    In January, the Chinese authorities shut down a prominent women’s legal aid clinic in the capital. Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center, a symbol of civil society progressivism for two decades, was shuttered indefinitely without explanation.

    A high-profile Protestant leader, Rev. Gu Yuese, was arrested in February, the latest move in a campaign to limit the rapid growth of Christianity in China. The clergyman was the most senior government-sanctioned church leader to be arrested since the Cultural Revolution.

    Lawyers continue to figure prominently in Beijing’s repression of dissidents. In April, a human rights lawyer was arrested after he reposted material linking President Xi to the Panama Papers, and another had his license revoked after criticizing the government on social media.

    The Communist Party’s authoritarian grasp has also shown an increased willingness to reach across the South China Sea. In a case that made headlines all over the world, five Hong Kong booksellers who worked at a publishing house and bookstore that sold materials critical of the Communist Party were arrested on the Chinese mainland earlier this year under mysterious circumstances. Two of the booksellers have been released, but three are still in police custody.

    Indeed, there are almost daily reports of activists being harassed and detained for their work. Much of the coverage of those cases, however, comes from foreign media outlets. That’s because news media run by the Communist Party must, according to President Xi, strictly follow the party leadership and focus on “positive reporting.”

    Speaking at a media symposium in February, Xi said that “all news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions and protect the party’s authority and unity.” Xi also added that journalists “should enhance their awareness to align their ideology, political thinking and deeds to those of the CPC Central Committee and help fashion the party’s theories and policies into conscious action by the general public while providing spiritual enrichment to the people.”

    “In a country where media is highly controlled by government, there is limited space for media development,” said a Chinese news editor at a larger international media organization, who does not want his name published. “Self-censorship exists in almost every Chinese local media [outlet]. Chinese media workers will have very different ideas on censorship than those working for foreign media.”

    Economic anxiety

    Experts fear the crackdown on activism and media point to a broadening Communist Party attack on what it considers potential threats to its authority.

    “The detentions are especially disturbing when we recall that Xi Jinping himself talked about the importance of the rule of law on more than one occasion after he became the leader of China’s party-state,” said Josephine Chui-Duke, professor of Chinese intellectual history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “China’s political decisions and practices are usually never transparent to the outside world, but one thing that seems quite clear is that the recent intensification of their repressive measures must have something to do with their fear of losing control over these rights movements in Chinese society.”

    Other China watchers attribute aggressive moves against civil society to a government made jittery by an underperforming economy: The country’s GDP grew by just 6.9 percent in 2015, the weakest annual growth rate in 25 years.

    “The faltering economy has put pressure on the party to try and strengthen its own hold on power because its prestige has been degraded by the fact that it’s not able to deliver the economic benefits that it has in the years following the Cultural Revolution until fairly recently,” said Charles Burton, associate professor of Chinese politics at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and former diplomat at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

    Anxiety over the future performance of the Chinese economy might explain why authorities are particularly sensitive to the criticisms of grassroots campaigns, whether those campaigns are environmentalist, religious or political in nature.

    In other words, if activists feel emboldened to criticize the lack of personal freedoms afforded to the Chinese people, they might also feel brazen enough to take on the party’s handling of the economy. For a government whose legitimacy rests upon the improvement of living conditions and increase of material success of the people, this is unacceptable.

    “The party plans to carry out a systematic suppression of civil society until all the dissident voices and alternative narratives about Chinese politics and history and culture are silenced,” Burton said. “The question is: Are the people in China prepared to accept a regime that is so much at odds with the value of ordinary people, particularly urban, middle-class people?”

    Zhiqun Zhu, an expert in contemporary Chinese politics, suggests that they are. He believes that many Chinese people don’t have a problem with Xi’s creeping cult of personality, as long as the president continues to root out corruption.

    “With so many thorny problems to deal with, such as rampant corruption, you need a strong  — a very strong — leader at the top. This explains why Xi remains popular at the grassroots level despite all the problems perceived by Western observers. This has a lot to do with China’s paternalistic culture,” said Zhiqun Zhu, associate professor of political science and international relations and director of the China Institute at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

    According to Zhu, the average Chinese person prioritizes the pursuit of a better material life over protesting anti-democratic activity. The reality in today’s China is that liberal voices among the Communist Party have been effectively neutralized, and there just aren’t any viable alternatives to the current regime’s hardline approach. And even if there were, many might reject it anyway.

    “In the end,” Zhu explained, “[the Chinese people] tend to agree with the party that maintaining stability is preferable to any sort of ‘color revolution,’ which may lead to instability and chaos.”

    Brainwashing the Chinese people

    Meanwhile, Ilshat Hassan, the Uyghur activist mistreated by the Chinese government, doesn’t hold any grudges against the Chinese people. After being granted political asylum in Malaysia, he came into contact with many ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. Hassan describes the Chinese Muslims, Christians and Buddhists he met as “very traditional, very kind people.”

    He has no such views on the current Chinese regime, however.

    “The root [problem] is the Communist dictatorship,” he said. “It brainwashed the Chinese people. They became indifferent to the violation of their neighbor’s rights.”

    Nor does he believe the country of his birth is moving in the right direction.

    “Every day, there are new outrages. For journalists, lawyers, activists these are very dangerous times. Even for regular people.”

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