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    Greater China
     May 17, 2011

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The ghosts of Wenchuan
By Peter Lee

The Chinese government's efforts to control both the physical and mental space available to dissenters converged in recent weeks as the Arab Spring raged and the politically fraught May 12 anniversary of the catastrophic Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province approached. However, the central authorities in Beijing have suffered an unexpected setback at the hands of a liberal-minded news organization, Guangzhou's Southern Metropolis Daily.

The Chinese government has moved aggressively to deprive any dissident political activity inside China of infrastructure, issues and potential leaders.

Artist and gadfly Ai Weiwei was prevented from boarding a flight to Hong Kong on April 3 and disappeared into detention, followed by a charge of "economic crimes". On May 11, security officers

pulled author and social critic Liao Yiwu off a plane, scuppering his plans for a world tour that would focus on his revealing depictions of China's economic, social, and religious underclasses.

These actions may represent an evolution in tactics for the Chinese government. In the past, dissidents were often shunted off to foreign exile, removing human-rights irritants in China's foreign relations, isolating troublemakers overseas, and giving them the opportunity to diminish their credibility by seeking the aid of hostile governments.

However, as the Arab Spring has shown, Internet circumvention technology, while not achieving seamless integration between overseas activists and their domestic sympathizers, enable communication and information exchanges that easily outstrip the attempts of authoritarian regimes to control and counter them.

Even China, which commands some of the world's most sophisticated Internet surveillance and censorship infrastructure, cannot stop the news, debate, and strategizing that flows across the Great Firewall courtesy of proxy servers, Skype, encrypted e-mail, RSS feeds, and the financial and technical support and encouragement of the United States government. [1]

Therefore, in a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences, aggressive US investment in Internet circumvention technology will probably lead to increased travel restrictions and domestic detention for Chinese dissidents and activists.

The Chinese government has decided to take the international public relations hit while communicating to its domestic audience that it will recognize no limits in its efforts to control threatening political and social activity and expression.

Professor Perry Link of University of California, Riverside, who closely follows the situation of Chinese dissidents and activists, told Asia Times Online that the People's Republic of China (PRC) government is intent on inhibiting the emergence of leaders with national stature and a significant following.

"It comes from the top," he said, observing that the crackdown is too intensive and pervasive to be simply a matter of local authorities harassing dissident figures on their own initiative.

He cited the case of Teng Biao, a prominent human-rights activist and lawyer who was had been detained for two months, from February to April this year, in the midst of the government's heightened anxiety over the call for "Jasmine" walk-by demonstrations throughout China.

After his release, "Teng's not talking", said Link, indicating that Teng was subjected to intense and debilitating pressure because "usually he won't stop talking".

"They [the government] want to keep things atomized," he said, citing the examples of Ai, Liao, Teng, and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year prison term.

At least 100 activists, dissidents, and critics have been detained in recent months. Author Liao Yiwu, who has first-hand experience of virtually the full portfolio of Chinese repressive tactics from imprisonment on up, described the current situation as "the worst in 20 years". [2]

Even as it deploys its troops on the physical and cyber fronts, China is also marshaling its forces to win control of the mental battlefield, trying to assert its legitimacy and deny dissidents hot-button issues to exploit. That's no easy task for an authoritarian regime honeycombed with corruption and favoritism, as the ongoing furor over the legacy of the Wenchuan earthquake demonstrates.

The earthquake, which registered 8.0 on the Richter scale, killed more than 80,000 people in Sichuan province's mountainous north on May 12, 2008, and the days after. It has also become a defining moment in the relations between Chinese activists and their government.

When the quake first shook Sichuan, it looked like one of those challenges that might showcase Chinese unity and capacity, especially when contrasted with the internationally maligned response of the Myanmar government to Cyclone Nargis which had swept in from the Bay of Bengal a few days earlier.

Domestic and foreign correspondents - benefiting from a relaxation of media control that was part of China's Olympic year best-foot-forward strategy - were allowed into the quake-hit area in large numbers. Initial foreign and domestic coverage was favorable, concentrating on the enormous and effective relief effort. However, it was followed by more critical scrutiny of the performance of the local government both before and after the quake.

The disaster at the Beichuan Middle School - where perhaps 1,000 students and teachers perished - provides a revealing illustration of how things went wrong for the government in terms of its media and public relations management.

Initially, during the heroic-response honeymoon, the school was reported to have been destroyed by a landslide. It transpired that the tragedy at Beichuan fitted a more sinister pattern, being attributable to shoddy construction that had led also to the collapse of other schools in the area. It was a narrative the local government went to extreme lengths to suppress.

An Amnesty International report described harassment - not just phone taps and browbeating, but detentions for up to three weeks - of parents trying to get genuine information about the state of the collapsed schools and fate of their children.

CNN wrote:
[The Amnesty report] cited Sichuan Executive Vice-Governor Wei Hong as stating that the earthquake itself was the most important cause of the collapse. But such arguments were not persuasive to some parents.

"Except the school building, other buildings in Beichuan county did not collapse during the earthquake," said the father of a 15-year-old who died at Beichuan Middle School. "What kind of earthquake was this?" [3]
A major political earthquake, apparently.

Shoddily constructed schools - described by one activist as "tofu dreg" schools for their lack of structural integrity - became the signature image of the Wenchuan earthquake. Critics zeroed in on the scandal of the collapsed schools and the horror of thousands of children who perished inside them, raising some extremely awkward questions about official corruption, lack of construction oversight and facility inspection, and the legal and moral culpability of local government and party officials.

The central government neglected to avail itself of one of its most valuable resources - the ability to blame local administrations for spectacular and deadly failures - and instead dropped the hammer on reportage about collapsing schools, keeping foreign and local journalists away from the quake zone and issuing guidelines banishing the story from the nation's media.

This may have simply been a matter of the Chinese government deciding it didn't want to take any more PR hits in its Olympic year.

Some observers speculated that the Ministry of Propaganda was bowing to the anxieties of culpable Sichuanese officials at the local and national level, and that China's media management was now devoted to protecting the interests of factions and individuals instead of propping up the state ideology. [4]

Government censorship, repression, and persecution served only to intensify and deepen the critique by writers and artists of the state's failures before and after the quake. In some cases, their feelings of disgust were undoubtedly exacerbated by the mistreatment they personally endured.

Both Ai Weiwei and Liao Yiwu were prominent critics of the role of corruption and cover-up in exacerbating the human cost of the Wenchuan earthquake, helping to expose the shocking deaths of schoolchildren. Liao spent weeks in the earthquake zone and wrote a book, which could not be published inside China but was available in Taiwan and France, where it was published under the title "Quand la terre s'est ouverte au Sishuan".

Its Chinese title, The Earthquake Madhouse: A Record of the Great May 12 Sichuan Earthquake perhaps describes Liao's feelings more accurately.

In 2009, the government did not permit Liao to go to Australia to accept an award for the book. Certainly, his trip would not have been a propaganda windfall for the PRC. Liao's reporting undercut the official government narrative of optimism and achievement, painting a picture of a regime corrupt and lifeless at its heart even when it was pouring manpower and money into the quake zone to deal with the disaster.

In one instance Liao recorded the bitter complaint of a woman who had lost her child in the quake and was struggling to deal with the issues of life insurance, compensation, accountability, and justice:
Every year we paid 30 yuan [US$4.67] to the school for insurance for our baby, you can go check. [Now] people say only 8 yuan was paid every month [to the insurance company]. Maybe the school was ripping us off. Something I have an even harder time understanding, is that the older buildings didn't collapse. Buildings from the 1960s didn't collapse, buildings from the 1970s didn't collapse, it was just the new buildings built from 1996 to 1999 that crumbled and snapped. [I] Don't know where the school found those crooked construction companies.

The chiefs who arranged the contracts must have gotten so much blood money! Now they want us to "involve ourselves deeply in earthquake rescue and relief", they push "reporting on the positive aspects". As for the negative aspects, nobody takes care of those. Parents go all around making a fuss, there's no results. Volunteers come here and stick their noses into things that are none of their business, and people get beat up. Two months passed in a flash! And the town is [still] locked down and everybody's down-hearted. Just look at the armed police carrying their guns all day, with that intimidating attitude. In the eyes of the common people, they're as good as wooden statues. They can't solve any problems. When cadres at every level catch sight of us, they avoid us. Wouldn't you say this government is paralyzed?
A letter Liao subsequently wrote on the subject of his aborted trip to Australia contained the coda to his planned acceptance speech:
I want to dedicate this award as tribute to the earthquake victims, as a ceremony to mourn for the masses that have been neglected, tortured and slaughtered, as a chronicle that records the battles between the masses and the corrupted officials and between memory and forgetfulness.

Many years later, this award will make people remember my book, remembering a shameful chapter in contemporary Chinese history. [5]
Ai Weiwei ventured into the Sichuan earthquake madhouse and suffered a beating for his pains. he was punched in the head by one of the policemen who came to his Chengdu hotel room at 3 am to detain him and prevent him from testifying on behalf of Tan Zuoren, a Sichuan writer who investigated the school-collapse scandal, coined the phrase "tofu dregs", and compiled a victim database.

Ai subsequently underwent surgery in Munich to remove an accumulation of fluid from his brain from a hemorrhage probably caused by the punch, a procedure he turned into an integrated media, photography, blogging, and Twitter availability. A week later, blogging on his experiences and the upcoming 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Ai echoed Liao's words of a few months before:
If one sentence can make a conclusion of these 60 years on the first of October that will be: 60 years of shame and ignorance. [6]
As for Tan, he was indicted, tried, and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, ostensibly for writings that crossed one of the central government's red lines: discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

It was obvious that his conviction, and the heavy-handed intimidation meted out to Ai, Liao, other witnesses, and to

Continued 1 2

Warnings put 'stability' above the law
Apr 13, 2011

Quake opens responsibility fault line
Jun 6, 2008



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