Heading into this spring, other China-watchers and I occasionally discussed the widespread crackdown on dissenting voices that President Xi Jinping implemented over his first year in office, and we all agreed that things would probably tighten even further as the 25th anniversary of the June Fourth massacre approached. Unfortunately, that prediction has proven true—even more so than I expected, actually. In the past week, the government has detained several high-profile activists, effectively silencing them just over three weeks in advance of the anniversary:
• On May 3, nearly 20 Tiananmen activists and scholars held a private seminar in Beijing; on May 5, five attendees were detained by the authorities. Since criminal detention can legally last up to 30 days, this ensures that those arrested will be out of sight on June 4 itself. China Real Time Report has a translation of the statement that participants in the seminar issued to journalists, which explains their stance on the events of 1989 and what they are hoping to accomplish now:
What we require and we are doing now is trying to investigate the truth of the incident, restore accuracy to history, and thereby achieve justice and a social transformation while closing the country’s wounds.
• The most prominent activist arrested in this sweep (accused of “creating a public disturbance”) is lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was a student protestor at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and has continued to fight for free speech and other civil rights in the decades since. Pu has vowed to visit Tiananmen every year on the evening of June 3, an annual observation that he wrote about in 2006 for the New York Review of Books. Pu’s detention has provoked a reaction online, though this article about his younger supporters (members of the “post-90s generation,” who are college students now) initially makes it sound like their numbers are much larger than what turns out to be “the dozen or so students who have publicly posted photos” of themselves holding posters stating their support of Pu.
• In late April, the government detained outspoken journalist Gao Yu, who has since been accused of leaking state secrets. Last week, Gao appeared on state television to confess to the validity of the charges. Though no one is exactly sure what “state secrets” she is supposed to have revealed, speculation is that Gao is responsible for obtaining and circulating “Document No. 9,” an internal memo about CCP ideological policy that takes a hardline approach toward cracking down on dissent. The document leaked late last summer, and ChinaFile published an English translation in November.
• Last Wednesday night, Beijing authorities detained soldier-turned-artist Chen Guang, who participated in the military crackdown in 1989. On April 29, Chen staged a piece of performance art for a private audience at his studio in Beijing; during the performance, he “silently slathered white paint over walls numbered with the years 1989 to 2014, which had been painted earlier in magenta, red and blue,” according to the New York Times.
• These detentions have sparked concern among human-rights groups and China-watchers around the world. On May 7, the U.S. State Department’s daily news briefing included a discussion of Pu Zhiqiang and the ongoing clampdown on free speech in China:
“The United States is deeply concerned over reports that rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and other activists have been detained,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a regular news briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
“We call on Chinese authorities to release these individuals immediately, remove restrictions on their freedom of movement, and guarantee them the protections and freedoms to which they are entitled under China’s international human rights commitments.”
Not surprisingly, the Chinese government did not let this reprimand pass by without comment. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson responded, “We hope that the U.S. side stops these unreasonable words and deeds which interfere in China’s internal affairs and judicial sovereignty.”
In addition to making sure that critics of the government will not have the opportunity to speak out before the 25th anniversary, the authorities in Beijing are also seeking to make Tiananmen Square itself more secure. Last week, they installed new traffic barriers, which are allegedly more impact-resistant than the old ones, in an apparent move to prevent anyone from driving a car into the square or the area around it in protest (which happened last fall).