Beijing’s Secret Crackdown On Dissidents, Fears Of Arab Spillover

Some 30 people are missing, 20 arrested and more than 200 placed under interrogation, as the pro-democracy uprising in the Arab creates a quiet panic within the Chinese regime.

Great Wall
Great Wall
Brice Pedroletti

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 Republic's 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 government's 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 China's 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 Group's 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 China's 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

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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