When the so-called Arab Spring swept the Middle East and North Africa, the reverberations also shuddered through Chinese civil society – first as a new wave of online activism, and then as crushing oppression from the Chinese state.
When dissidents began calling for China to stage its own “Jasmine Revolution,” the authorities responded with overwhelming force. Since February the Chinese government has targeted more than 100 activists and human rights defenders.
The weight of such overt oppression — the worst since the 2009’s deadly Urumqi riots — is made particularly acute by the 22nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy activists. Although more than two decades have passed since the 1989 protests, the Chinese authorities are quick to extinguish any forms of commemoration, and to silence voices of discontent raised around the politically volatile anniversary.
In 2004, just before the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, Chinese journalist, poet and essayist Shi Tao was arrested and charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” after he sent an email to an overseas pro-democracy website. In his message, he outlined a government order that directed media outlets not to cover any commemoration or activism related to the anniversary. After a year of detention, Shi Tao was sentenced to a decade behind bars. Amnesty International considers Shi Tao to be a prisoner of conscience, and encourages action on his behalf.
This year, with tensions in the country already high, journalists, activists, and other human rights defenders are at particularly grave risk. According to a recent article published by Radio Free Asia, the approach of the 22nd anniversary saw a greater environment of surveillance and fear than ever before, with plain-clothes policemen spilling past the borders of the square into the suburbs surrounding Beijing. Furthermore, even those Chinese citizens who sought to express themselves through state sanctioned channels, such as traveling to Beijing to formally lodge complaints, ran the risk of detention.
Many of those detained in recent months are facing the charge of “inciting subversion”. Liang Haiyi has been recognized as the first activist to be arrested under the crackdown on the “Jasmine Revolution”. Inspired by the regime change in Tunisia, Liang reposted information from dissident websites hosted outside China about plans for protests in Chinese cities.
Liang was lauded for her bravery by Wang Dan, the exiled leader of the 1989 Tiananmen student protests. Amnesty International joins Wang Dan in his praise for Liang Haiyi – and, indeed, for all of the Jasmine activists — and calls on China to listen to the many voices demanding change.
In the words of Catherine Baber, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia-Pacific:
“Chinese authorities should encourage more participation and uphold people’s right to express diverse views, in order to tackle the country’s problems with social justice, corruption and inequality.”