Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu took a question at a press conference on Tuesday about the disappearance of another dissident. Her response, which quickly pinged around the Chinese online community and its English-language China-watching counterparts, was to blithely assert: "I have not heard of that person."
While standard practice, Ms. Jiang's denial was especially disingenuous in this case, given that the missing man was well-known Australian-Chinese blogger and novelist Yang Hengjun, one of China's most prominent online commentators. Also, Dr. Yang previously spent 20 years working at the same Chinese Foreign Ministry as Ms. Jiang, and the government of Australia had been asking her ministry since Sunday about his whereabouts. (More about Dr. Yang's work here and here.)
Dr. Yang went missing last weekend soon after he tweeted that he was being followed by three strange men at the Guangzhou airport. He subsequently managed to send his sister a coded message that he was having "a long visit with his old friends." Translation: he was being detained and questioned by the secret police. Yesterday, he reportedly made another brief phone call, in which he claimed to be free but in a hospital, and that he had been sick and having mobile phone problems during the unaccounted days. After the Australian government made yet another public demand for consular access following the news of his "release" (raising new questions about whether he was actually free), there were further indications by evening in Beijing that Dr. Yang was going to be leaving China in the coming days.
If true, Dr. Yang can be considered one of the lucky ones, whose celebrity, connections, and foreign passport seem to have ensured him a fate no worse than involuntary exile. We likely won't know the details of what transpired over the past week until he is on Australian soil but his many Chinese and Western friends are now breathing a sigh of relief that he seems likely to come out of this relatively unscathed.
The same cannot be said of two of his fellow bloggers, Ran Yunfei and Chen Wei, both of Sichuan province. After five weeks in unacknowledged custody, they were formally charged this week with "incitement to subvert state power," the same thought crime that Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and dozens of other dissidents have been charged with or imprisoned for committing. Yang's bizarre disappearance and the charges against Ran and Chen fit squarely within a sweeping crackdown on activists across China. Since February, dozens of lawyers, writers, journalists and activists have been detained, disappeared or charged with serious crimes. The ChinaGeeks website has compiled a helpful, if admittedly incomplete, list of recent disappearances and detentions. This list is populated with both little known activists and high profile ones, such as Teng Biao, arguably one of China's most well known weiquan or rights lawyers, who disappeared in mid-February along with fellow lawyer Jiang Tianyong. While this surge in recent cases appears to be part of the authorities' paranoid response to the so-called "Jasmine Revolution," it should be seen more accurately as the intensification of a crackdown on dissent that has been gaining steam over the past 2-3 years. This crackdown has been marked by a number of high profile dissidents and activists who first disappeared for months then were later given heavy prison sentences for political activities. The most famous of these is Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, whose year-long disappearance finally ended with a kangaroo court proceeding and an 11-year prison sentence on Christmas Eve 2009.
But there's also Gao Zhisheng, an activist/lawyer whose desperate wife wrote a heartbreaking op-ed about his latest year-long disappearance in the New York Times; Liu Xianbin, a long-time democracy activist who last week was sentenced to 10 years after 9 months in illegal detention and a 2 hour trial; and Liu Xiaobo's wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since her husband was awarded the Nobel prize last fall. These detentions and disappearances are also taking place against a backdrop of resurgent leftism under the leadership of so-called "Red princelings" like Bo Xilai, continued creeping statism in the economy, and deepening censorship.
One of the most worrying aspects of this emerging situation is the harsh crackdown on the weiquan lawyers, like Teng Biao, who have bravely represented other dissidents and activists in court, trying to hold the Chinese government to its frequent pronouncements that China is a country governed under the rule of law. While they have been subject to harassment for years, including threats to their law licenses and other pressures not to take up controversial cases, this latest wave of arrests and disappearances has sent a chill through China's legal community and those who watch it from the outside. Joshua Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation, an observer of China's legal system, wrote last week in the Wall Street Journal: "Lawyers are being targeted precisely because of their efforts to hold the Chinese government accountable for those commitments [to the rule of law]. What's happening in China right now looks less like rule of law than a sort of ‘law of the jungle’ in which power is exercised unchecked."
Or, as another, more colorful Beijing-based expatriate blogger Rude Noon noted in a must-read post: “‘The rule of law’ has become a Chinese buzz phrase, but they really have no idea what that means. There are no laws other than what the CPC (Ed.: Communist Party of China) decides are laws. This is what can only be called ‘single party legal convenience,’ or, more accurately, ‘bullshit.’” (Read the whole thing here.)
Unfortunately, the State Department and the White House have been virtually silent on the crackdown that has been building since Hu Jintao returned from his January visit to Washington. Over the past two months, the White House's comments on human rights in China have been pretty much limited to a generic, glancing mention by Robert Gibbs during the February 11 daily press briefing in response to a question about the Middle East. When President Obama introduced Gary Locke as his nominee to be the new ambassador in Beijing, neither man mentioned human rights at all.
The State Department hasn't been much better. After American journalists were among those beaten up by Chinese security forces for trying to cover "Jasmine Revolution" events, the Department spokesman noted that Ambassador Huntsman had demarched China on the matter, but there was no mention of the broader crackdown underway or any concerns for its Chinese victims. On March 8, State's erstwhile spokesman P.J. Crowley finally did deliver a brief prepared comment expressing concern, by name, over the detention or disappearance of several individuals and calling for China "to uphold its internationally recognized obligations of universal human rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly." At the next day's briefing, however, when a journalist tried to follow up on the Chinese human rights situation with Crowley's deputy Mark Toner, he sounded as clueless as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, seemingly unable to articulate the Department's purpose in raising those cases at that time. (By way of contrast, State took less than 24 hours to condemn the March 29 arrest of Bahraini blogger Mahmood al-Yousif.)
And its not like they have lacked opportunities to address the situation in China. On February 16 - the same day the authorities began to close in on three top Chinese rights lawyers - Secretary Clinton's senior advisor for innovation (his actual title), Alec J. Ross, followed his boss in giving a speech on Internet freedom. After first downplaying China's importance as an Internet censorship leader, Ross said:
When people ask me what the United States can do to change the internet in China, my response to that is that it’s less that the United States Government is going to change the internet in China than the more than quarter billion Chinese under the age of 25 who are on the internet today. I think that Chinese youth are going to define the future of the internet in China, not the American Government.
Other than this piffle, there was nothing on the fact that bloggers were being jailed and China was furiously employing unprecedented levels of Internet suppression that very week, including censoring the words "Egypt" and "Cairo" on search engines, and blocking online efforts by the U.S. embassy in Beijing to post messages about Secretary Clinton's Internet freedom speech on the previous day.
Over the next few months, as always, the United States government will be attempting to do serious business with the same lawless Chinese regime that is ruthlessly imprisoning and 'disappearing' intellectuals, writers, lawyers and others for political thought crimes, in flagrant contravention of its own laws and Constitution. We have big, important-sounding meetings coming up with them: the G-20, the Strategic & Economic Dialogue, and the East Asia Summit. Discussion of the deteriorating rights environment should be a major topic at all upcoming meetings with Chinese officials - not just a subject to be dumped into the ghetto of the bilateral human rights dialogue, which is supposedly scheduled for this spring.
Contrary to the fantasy promoted by China's fan club on Wall Street and the New York Times editorial page (looking at you, Tom Friedman), the fundamentally authoritarian quality of the Chinese government does matter when we sit down to negotiate on everything from Iran to currency matters to the environment. It should be plainly obvious by now that a government that compulsively ignores its own laws in order to brutalize its own citizens will hardly feel bound by any agreements it reaches with its frenemies in Washington. If we aren't willing to confront the Chinese government over its abusive behavior at home, the least we can do is stop deluding ourselves about who and what that government really is, even when it is sitting across the table from us.