China: more arrests, more censorship, less freedom

 After the excitement of the Olympics, and the supposed loosening of restrictions on protest and free speech that came with them, it’s business as usual in China. There have been reports of new crackdowns on the Internet, justified by the authorities as a purge of smutty content (so why shut down the Amnesty site again?); the detention of prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo and the harassment of others involved in the Charter ’08 reform movement; and the detention yesterday of activist Mao Hengfeng.  

I say ‘supposed loosening’ because the Olympics were such a missed opportunity for China to open up to the world and improve its image abroad. Foreign journalists were allowed in but were prevented from reporting on dissidents and protesters, most of whom had been placed under house arrest before the press arrived; my ITN contact John Ray was thrown to the ground and stamped on by the security services when he tried to film a protester. Restrictions on the Internet were only lifted after an international outcry when journalists couldn’t even access the Amnesty site from within the Olympics media centre.  

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the authorities have reacted with such panic at the publication of Charter ’08, which calls for wholesale reform and respect for human rights.

There are thousands of localised protests every year in China, often about land seizures to build factories or corruption – the BBC reports today about a successful protest to stop a chemicals factory being built in a residential area.  

But when these protests become national – such as those about Bird Flu, baby milk or poor building standards that may have led to public buildings collapsing in last year’s earthquake – the authorities tend to stamp them out.

And the massive growth of the Internet in China – CNN reports today that its number of users has soared to 298 million, more than any other country – provides the ideal platform for protest to spread and people to mobilise. Reports say that more than 7,000 people have now signed Charter ’08 after it was circulated in blogs and emails. It’s no coincidence that Bullog – a blog known for lively and critical debate – was caught up in the ‘smut crackdown’.  

Maybe those who smugly proclaimed that the Olympics had successfully ‘opened up’ China – including the UK government – will realise that little changed, because governments and the Olympic movement didn’t do enough to pressure the Chinese authorities into respecting their human rights promises. Maybe they might do something about it now – but don’t hold your breath.

 

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