LIKE so much else under Heaven, repression in China has often seemed to go in cycles. Every now and then it has suited the country’s leaders to relax their steely grip on the country and allow a modicum of political liberty.
Freer criticism in the media has helped give the party a veneer of credibility. Lip-service to the law and due process has won plaudits overseas and boosted the economy at home. So a thaw would set in for a while, a “Beijing spring”. A freeze would always follow. But, until lately, in each new cycle the springs were seeming warmer and the freezes not quite so harsh. When the country was starting to liberalise, Westerners justified doing business with China on just such grounds. More economic openness would surely lead to more openness of other kinds.
The latest freeze casts this widespread hope into doubt, for three reasons. The first is the scale of the crackdown. Ai Weiwei, China’s best-known artist and dissident, who was detained at Beijing airport on April 3rd, is only the most notable figure to be caught by it. Calls on the internet for a “jasmine revolution” have prompted armed police and plain-clothes goons to descend in huge numbers on public places to stop people from “strolling”, as a veiled form of protest.
Dozens have been detained and now face criminal charges in relation to these inchoate calls. Others have faced different kinds of harassment, including beatings and house arrest. But the freeze runs deeper. Since February some of the country’s top defence lawyers have vanished. Activists for villagers’ rights and the environment have faced repression. Bloggers have been rounded up. Members of a big underground (ie, non-state) church in Beijing, stopped from meeting in their usual building, were arrested as they tried to worship outside.
A second reason for doubt is the duration of the crackdown. With hindsight, it began after Tibetan riots in 2008 drew a harsh response. Since then, two events, the Beijing Olympics later that year and the Shanghai World Expo of 2010, might have served as coming-out parties for a rising China. They offered the regime the chance to show the world a more confident face. Yet both were accompanied by harsh treatment of anyone deemed likely to embarrass the government. Tens of thousands of unwashed migrant workers were forced out of Beijing for lowering the tone. Outspoken activists were kept out of sight.