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
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
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. 
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
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
"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
"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
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". 
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
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
[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?" 
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. 
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?
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. 
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
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. 
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