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In the 33 years since Tiananmen, China has learned how to stifle activism

In the 33 years since Tiananmen, China has learned how to stifle activism
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Once a week, Chinese activists Sophia Huang Xueqin Wang Jianping gathered friends and acquaintances together, mostly just to talk.

In Wang’s one-bedroom apartment in downtown Guangzhou, attendees will share their experiences about working in China’s beleaguered nonprofit sector, about being gay or about maintaining mental health when it is marginalized by the CCP’s vision of society.

Sometimes the group just watched a movie, went for a long walk or played a game of mah-jongg or a board game. It was meant to be a safe and inclusive space to support one another or speak openly about ideas prohibited from public discourse by state censorship.

Now, partly because of these gatherings, Huang and Wang are facing charges of “inciting the subversion of state power.”

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Nearly nine months after their disappearance, the case of “xuebing” – the amalgamation of names used by their supporters – has become an example of the extent to which the Communist Party will go to stifle ideas diverging from its own. Now 33 years after the Tiananmen Square demonstration was crushed, the authorities are making sure such movements never begin.

Combined with a high-profile campaign to crush public advocacy from pro-democracy activists and human rights lawyers, China’s security state is increasingly devoting vast resources to monitoring the private lives of socially active people with views it considers problematic.

Human rights activists have criticized the visit last week by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to China, where she only visited cautious criticism for a mass arrest campaign in Xinjiang. Huang and Wang’s supporters expressed it frustration Anne Bachelet, speaking at Guangzhou University, just minutes from where Wang was living, praised “the actions and actions of young people who challenge discrimination, injustice and inequality” but did not raise the issue publicly.

Since the couple were arrested in September 2021, the day before Huang traveled to Britain to study, Chinese police have questioned dozens of individuals who attended weekly gatherings, sometimes traveling across the country to track them down or take people on the street. close friends of the two told The Washington Post in interviews. The interrogation usually lasts 24 hours.

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The individuals, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, say there is no basis for the meetings to be considered disruptive. However, during the interrogation it turned out that this was the conclusion reached by the police. A friend said investigators used photos from events in early 2021, indicating that they had been monitoring the group for more than half a year before Huang and Wang were arrested.

Police called these meetings an attempt to sabotage the state a “complete slander,” said one of Huang’s close friends who attended the rallies. “They are complete bulls—, coming from their paranoia.”

“We were just making friends and talking about topics ranging from how hard it is to be gay or how many sleepless nights we’ve had this week to how hard it is to find a job,” she said.

Neither the National Branch nor the Guangzhou Branch of China’s Ministry of Public Security responded to faxed requests for comment.

The opacity of the Chinese legal system, especially for cases affecting national security, means that the exact nature of the plaintiffs’ case against Huang and Wang remains unclear, even to their lawyers. Wang’s lawyer was able to meet with him for half an hour in April for the first time. Huang’s lawyer’s request to meet with her client or to present the prosecutor’s case against her was refused, citing the authorities Corona Virus prevention measures.

Both have previously worked on issues that the Chinese state considers sensitive. Huang, a prominent feminist, has gone from journalism to activism over the course of the #MeToo movement because she has supported women to come forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault. Wang has worked for a labor rights NGO that supports workers with work-related illnesses.

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It is unclear to what extent their activism was also considered grounds for the sabotage charge. In 2019, Huang was detained for three months after she wrote articles on protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s imposition of a stifling national security law. But friends say the police seemed primarily concerned with the nature of the weekly meetings, as well as any international events they attended or the foreign funding they might have received.

under the chair Xi JinpingThe Chinese security state has stepped up efforts to prevent dissent before it takes root. Gaps in surveillance that allowed previous generations of activists to gain momentum are increasingly being filled with new campaigns urging police to be vigilant against any sign of emerging threats to national security and social stability.

In previous administrations, movements were often able to gain some degree of public traction before arrests. When the Chinese military put a bloody end to the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square 33 years ago, its legacy continued in figures such as Liu Xiaobo, who helped write and promote a manifesto known as Charter 08, which in 2008 called for an end to one-party rule.

Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate imprisoned in China, has died at the age of 61

After the document garnered thousands of signatures, Liu was jailed for “inciting subversion” – the same crime for which Huang and Wang were charged – shortly before he won the Nobel Peace Prize. for him the death of liver cancer in 2017, while under the eyes of Chinese security agents, provoked an outpouring of grief from Chinese liberals.

The subsequent “Defense of Rights” movement largely abandoned calls for democratization in favor of demanding basic civil liberties for the oppressed. Lawyers and activists have advocated for victims of forced evictions, the spread of HIV via unclean needles, or practitioners of the banned spiritual movement, Falun Gong.

Once again, these efforts were suppressed in crackdowns that culminated in a sweeping campaign Campaign It began on July 9, 2015, when dozens were arrested at night.

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Since then, the government has sought to protect against the re-emergence of old movements and the arrival of a younger generation such as Huang and Wang, who focus more on maintaining personal dignity and the well-being of the individual.

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Human rights lawyers are now struggling to take on sensitive cases due to the delicate control system that has been built in recent years, according to Mina Huang, a Chinese human rights lawyer. It is also concerned that normalizing data monitoring during the pandemic will exacerbate the situation.

“The work that Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing did was very meaningful. It gave the youth a space to learn about this era and our situation.” “The charges against them are typical of the repression of young activists. The authorities fear that the younger generation will become active.”

According to friends of the couple, the idea of ​​starting the movement was far from their minds when attending gatherings at Wang’s apartment. Many, including Wang, were suffering from depression and anxiety at a time when civil society was under attack.

While consuming the tea, wine, and fruit that Wang offered, they would discuss their personal struggles along with the issues of the day. It wasn’t about how to respond. It was about how we understood what was happening. “Because we don’t think we have any space to perform any kind of activity,” said a friend.

Another friend lamented the authorities’ extreme intolerance towards communities operating outside their control. “But not every meeting is about the Chinese Communist Party. It is not all about you guys.”

Bi Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.