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JULY 31, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 4

Chien-min Chung/AP.
Police arrest Falun Gong followers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on the first anniversary of the government's crackdown and ban on the group.

Silencing Dissent
Jittery over rising social unrest, China's leaders are once again trying to muzzle liberal thinkers

If someone were to call you a big Capital Economy Liberalization Element, how would you react? If you were in China, you'd be wise to duck. That's the label being applied to He Qinglian, a Shenzhen-based journalist whose books and articles on economics—of all subjects—are bestsellers throughout China. After publishing A Comprehensive Analysis of China's Current Social Structural Evolution in March, He was slammed for propagating dangerous ideas. Last month she was demoted from her position at the Shenzhen Legal Daily and had her salary cut. Editors around the country were warned not to publish her work. "As an intellectual in China," He says, "a mishap could come"—she snaps her fingers—"just like this."

Beijing is once again cracking its whip on intellectuals and artists, and large numbers are feeling the lash. Among those targeted are four prominent members of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Li Shenzhi, a political scientist who advised former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, was blacklisted from publishing for posting a critical article on the Internet last December. Fan Gang and Mao Yushi, two high-profile economists, were upbraided for publicly advocating privatization and banned from teaching. Liu Junning, a political scientist and popular guest lecturer at various Beijing universities, lost his post at the social sciences academy, purportedly for granting interviews to foreign journalists. Liu is better known for advocating more democracy in China. "We can only guess," Liu replies when asked why he was sacked. "One reason is because there has been a real rise in liberal ideas in recent years."

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Unlike China's political pogroms of the past, this crackdown is muted. Officially, there is no campaign. No new slogans have been launched, though President Jiang Zemin regularly rails against society's "poisonous weeds," which can refer to any high-profile display of free expression, from articles denouncing corruption to racy novels and films. The crackdown follows a period of relative lenience, particularly for academics critiquing China's economy and society. And that is the Chinese pattern. "Repression in China flows in and out like the tide," says Liu Qing, who spent 10 years in Chinese jails as a political prisoner and now runs the New York City-based group Human Rights in China. "It's always present. It's just that sometimes it's enforced gently and sometimes severely."

The tides always have political undercurrents, and there are several in today's China. Most obvious is the leadership's jitters in advance of the 16th Communist Party congress to be held 25 months from now, at which Jiang's successor will probably be named. "Those who wish to remain in power," says Liu, now a visiting scholar at Harvard's Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, "want to show they're not breaking ranks from the orthodox ideology and, in fact, are protecting it."

Another impetus for a crackdown is a feeling that free expression is getting out of control in China. For the past year, Beijing has tried—with limited success—to smother the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Just two weeks ago Beijing police had to drag 100 sect members from Tiananmen Square to avoid disrupting the official reception for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Protests by laborers have mushroomed across the country. In the past two weeks alone, 1,000 workers surrounded a People's Liberation Army uniform factory in Chengdu to protest a possible closure of the plant, and 10,000 teachers threatened to take trains to Beijing to decry low wages. "If you're a top official sitting in Beijing," says Ding Xueliang, a social scientist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, "and you get news that 10,000 workers are blocking a road, you consider it a sign of big social trouble. You call up all the government monitoring organs and ask them to send you lists of troublemakers."

Included on that list these days are journalists who expose dirty deals and official malfeasance. Not long ago they were allies of Jiang's government, which publicly vowed to root out official corruption. No longer. "They simply raked up too much muck," says Sophia Woodman, Hong Kong-based research director of Human Rights in China. "The government can't begin to clean it all up." Creative artists are feeling the heat, including best-selling novelist Zhou Weihui, whose racy work has been denounced as "decadent," and urban angst-chronicler Wang Shuo. Both have had their books proscribed, although Wang takes that as a point of pride. "If your work hasn't been banned," he shrugs, "maybe it's not good enough." Novelists aren't much harmed by government bans, thanks to China's massive underground publishing industry, which can churn out whatever the public wants. Some intellectuals can ride out a crackdown too, especially if they are associated with privately funded think tanks. "There are a handful of independent Chinese entrepreneurs who like to support scholars who have fresh ideas," reports Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at New York's Columbia University.

But Beijing's new cycle of repression is just beginning—and it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Huang Qi is now in jail in Chengdu on charges of subversion. His crime: running a website that featured topics not covered by the state-controlled media. At 5 p.m. on June 3, the day before the 11th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, police arrived at his office asking him to accompany them to the station house for interrogation. Huang demanded a written summons and bought himself about half an hour of freedom. He posted updates on his situation, reporting that police were searching his premises. In real-time, he described them confiscating notebooks, photos and computers. Then the arresting officers arrived, and Huang typed his final message: "Thanks to everybody devoted to democracy in China. They are here now. So long."

—Reported by Jaime A. FlorCruz/Beijing, Isabella Ng and Susan Jakes/Hong Kong

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