Beijing strikes at dissidents

China has launched a tough countrywide crackdown on a new network of political activists, writers and lawyers who have supported a bold new manifesto that presses for the end of one-party rule.

The group of 300 or so people had all signed Charter 08, which called for democracy and the rule of law in China and was named after the famous Charter 77 dissident group formed in cold war Czechoslovakia.

Charter 08 has been hailed as the most significant act of public dissent against China’s Communist party since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests were brutally crushed in 1989. It was posted online on 10 December, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It condemned recent economic modernisation efforts as having ”stripped people of their rights”, and called for political reform and a new liberal, democratic Constitution.

However, Beijing has reacted by jailing some of Charter 08’s public supporters. At least 70 of the original signatories have been summoned or interrogated by the police. Prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo has been put under house arrest. The writer Wen Kejian has been detained in the resort city of Hangzhou, close to Shanghai. Police have also ransacked the Beijing home of Zhang Zuhua, one of the main authors of the charter, confiscating his passport as well as his computers, books and notebooks.

Professor Xu Youyu, a leading philosopher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has been told by police to retract his signature.

The hard line of the Chinese authorities comes after the success of the Beijing Olympics last summer. But any hopes held by pro-democracy activists that the event would soften the ruling party’s stance on dissent have now been crushed. The party has long tolerated riotous economic freedom as China has opened up to capitalism, but has twinned that with an iron fist when it comes to political activities.

It seems that the stance has not changed. The central propaganda department has warned all domestic media not to interview or write articles about anyone who signed Charter 08. All mention of the document is barred from emails, websites and search engines. According to Amnesty International, Beijiing considers the charter a ”counter-revolutionary platform”, which lays the basis for future arrests of its supporters.

Beijing has also used the launch of the charter to crack down on citizens who have campaigned against other abuses, widening the scope of its moves to crush dissent. Zhao Lianhai, who had organised parents of children affected by the recent tainted milk scandal, had been picked up police in Beijing. At the same time, parents of children who died in a collapsed school during the Sichuan earthquake last year have been told to stop talking to foreign journalists.

But it is not clear if the clampdown will succeed. The charter has now circulated widely in China, collecting some 7 000 signatures. Indeed, part of the reason for the severity of the security response is likely to be because many of the document’s backers are prominent, and even include some party officials.

Yet Beijing could not just ignore the challenge to its rule. China, after decades of growth, is being hit by the global economic downturn and the government is hypersensitive to any signs of social tension as it seeks to manage a wave of factory closures and job losses.

Senior government officials — including Zhang Ping, the head of the powerful national development and reform commission — have already expressed concern that a heavy rate of unemployment among migrant workers could foment further unrest and instability in 2009.

China is also bracing itself for a sequence of potent political dates over the course of this year. By the time the party celebrates 60 years since the founding of the People’s Republic on 1 October, 1949, it will first have to endure the 90th anniversary of the 4 May movement, one of the seminal acts of protest in modern Chinese history. One month later, 4 June will mark 20 years since the crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square itself. – guardian.co.uk

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