BEIJING - Lists of people are quietly making the rounds on the Chinese web. The lists contain the names of people who have disappeared (around 30), those who have been arrested (20), and finally, those individuals who have been invited for a cup of tea - the euphemism for being interrogated (200 and counting).
Up until now, a portion of civil society generally spared by Chinese authorities, including lawyers and Internet users, are getting worried for the first time. Several prominent lawyers, such as the 2007 recipient of the French Republics Human Rights award, the lawyer Teng Biao, have all disappeared without a trace following arrests by police on Feb. 19, 2011.
China has also arrested and charged the influential blogger Ran Yunfei for inviting subversion, even though previously tolerant of his activities. And after alerting his family he was having problems with the authorities, the writer Yang Hengjun - whose scathing blog tackled the Chinese political system - also disappeared on March 27 at Canton airport.
An ex-civil servant in Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hengjun has Australian nationality, which prompted people back home to quickly mobilize support for his plight. Hengjun eventually resurfaced in China on March 31, explaining unconvincingly that there had just been a misunderstanding. Due to arrive back in Australia shortly, people are hopeful more information will come to light about what the web has been calling the mysterious disappearance of Yang Hengjun.
In the governments attempt to thwart any signs of a Tunisian-style revolution, all of these people are victims of the Chinese security apparatus, and their sharp reaction in late February to dissidents calls for revolution in China. The authorities modus operandi is nothing new, but large swathes of the Chinese population claim ignorance about Chinas covert activities, or no longer believe it is still happening.
Various avenues for freedom of expression had opened up along these margins of Chinese society, for example, in the use of social networks, which are officialy blocked by the authorities but effectively used by many Chinese nevertheless. Furthermore, Nicholas Bequelin from Human Rights Watch says: Individuals were also engaged in a form of legal activism, and it went way beyond what those in power had envisaged. They campaigned to address what they saw as the legal anomalies of the system here, particularly in relation to the current political reality of the regime, which is openly and completely hostile to any ideas of a legally-constituted state or freedoms of expression.
Beijing is getting nervous in the face of current political developments in North Africa and the Middle East, particularly given the crucial role social networks played in mobilizing public opinion. According to some observers in China, the universal notions of a legally-constituted State, of freedom of expression and of tolerance have made huge inroads in China the last few years, thanks in large part to the Internet and a press that is increasingly privately owned and liberal, including the Nanfang Groups reformist agenda.
The hard-line wing of the regime sees these ideas as dangerous, yet this debate is catching wind not just within society as a whole, but also within the ruling Communist party and government, Bequelin says. The changes have prompted the authorities to crack down quickly on the most active fringe of dissident thinkers. It is a pre-emptive strike, he concludes. All manner of previously-tolerated figures now find themselves out in the cold.
None of these cases of people disappearing or being arrested has seemed to cause any real dismay on the web in China certainly to the degree of cases of injustice, suspicious prison deaths or abuses of police power, which are often accompanied by shocking Internet images.
The case of the lawyer Gao Zhisheng, tortured and still missing, now sets a far more serious precedent. In the past, authorities were cautious when handling members of the legal profession, all too aware of lawyers ability to defend themselves, help each other or mobilize public opinion efficiently.
But now, of the 12 people who have lost contact with their families, six are lawyers. In addition, a number of these lawyers colleagues have also received serious threats. These kind of secret abductions mean only one thing for some experts: an ultimate sense of powerlessness within Chinas security apparatus in the face of those who defend the law. According to the jurist Eva Pils, who specializes in human rights and China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, they are the signs of the regime growing more brutal: What we are seeing is it is not a wish to extract information, but a desire to intimidate and terrorize a whole sector of society.
Photo - inyucho