As part of its policy of repressing dissent, the Chinese authorities have intensified surveillance and harassment of people critical of the government on the eve of the next Communist Party congress, the twentieth edition of its main political meeting.
Numerous activists and government critics have been detained or placed under house arrest across the country since mid-September. Many human rights lawyers have been intimidated, harassed and followed by the police. The authorities fear that criticism of the government will generate social discontent that threatens the regime and they are doing everything possible to silence them before the congress, which is being held twice a decade And that starts this Sunday.
Xi Jinping is expected to obtain an unprecedented third term as party leader at this congress, which has taken security measures to the maximum in order to keep any possible disturbance at bay.
“Every morning, the police call me to check my plan for the day, they order me not to go anywhere, not to see anyone or say anything,” says a disqualified lawyer whose office was closed for defending political cases delicate. “The message is clear, ‘we are watching your every move.'” According to the lawyer, who does not want to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals, China’s social media platforms block everything that is uploaded and when he jumps the firewall to post on Twitter, the local police summon him and warn him of the consequences of post politically sensitive content.
Lawyer Yu Wensheng, who spent four years in jail, was banned from going outside on Wednesday by the security personnel of his residential complex. The police had told him that he could not visit foreign embassies or talk to journalists or post on Twitter before the congress. “I guess they’re trying to scare us,” he says.
Wang Quanzhang is another human rights lawyer who also spent time in prison (accused of inciting rebellion for his work defending activists). He says that in recent days the authorities have intensified their surveillance of his family. This week more officers have been deployed to watch and follow his relatives as they leave and the police have warned him not to air his views. “I guess the surveillance will intensify in the next few days,” he says.
Veteran lawyer Li Heping received the same treatment. His wife, Wang Qiaoling, says that since mid-September there have been plainclothes officers guarding their housing complex and that every time they go out there are police cars following them. “It’s an intimidation strategy to scare us,” she says. According to lawyer Xie Yanyi, security cameras around his house have improved in recent days and police cars are guarding the residential compound.
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong remains under close surveillance in his hometown in rural Henan, with few ways to communicate with the rest of the world. Prominent writer Gao Yu, whose health is fragile, cannot be reached. Veteran activist Hu Ju said on his WeChat account on Thursday that he had been forced to leave Beijing for about 10 days and that he feared he would not be able to return in time to care for his sick mother due to strict measures imposed by the government. COVID-19.
People across China planning to take their demands to Beijing have been forcibly removed from their homes and detained. Police arrested many who were in the vicinity of Beijing and forced them to return to their hometowns to be detained there. One such person told Radio Free Asia that police had set up roadblocks and train stations to prevent them from entering Beijing. Once detected, they were sent back to their hometowns, where they were detained.
The website Minsheng Guancha (Civil Rights & Livelihood Monitoring), which publishes human rights violations in China, has documented dozens of cases of activists and plaintiffs confined to their homes, forcibly repatriated, or arrested on the eve of a party congress. Many of them have been detained for periods of up to 15 days under the vague charge of “picking a fight and causing trouble”.
Chinese authorities have long used blanket accusations, such as “provoking trouble,” to target those who are a nuisance to the government. Just two weeks before the congress, the Ministry of Public Security announced that its crime-fighting operation, called “100 days” and started in June, had led to the arrest of 1.43 million people. According to the head of the operation, Qiu Baoli, the “heavy hand” of the campaign laid a “solid base” to guarantee the security of the political meeting. According to analysts, the repression of dissidents and activists would have been part of this campaign since they are often accused of “picking fights and causing problems” with their protests.
But not even an operation as widespread as this has managed to completely silence the voice of dissent: this Thursday, a rare protest against the Communist Party and its policies in Beijing fueled political tensions just three days before the congress that will re-elect Xi as party leader for the next ten years.
In photos and videos that circulated on social networks, two banners are seen hanging from an overpass on one of the main communication routes in the northwest corner of Beijing. Columns of smoke rose from the bridge. “We want food, not PCR tests. We want freedom, not lockdowns. We want respect, not lies. We want reforms, not a cultural revolution. We want a vote, not a leader. We want to be citizens, not slaves”, read one of the banners. Another called for strikes, a boycott of schools and the removal of Xi.
Internet police have censored keywords related to the protest and images, but many on Chinese social media alluded to the incident indirectly. “It is strange that the word ‘brave’ has become a sensitive keyword,” said one on WeChat. On Twitter, which is only accessible with mechanisms to bypass China’s firewall, the images and videos went viral and drew a large number of supportive comments. The exiled Chinese dissident community has also apparently taken heart, with some hosting webinars to discuss the meaning of the protest.
Chinese internet censors have also gone to great lengths to control cyberspace, banning politically sensitive words and phrases such as descriptions of stormy weather, Xi’s nicknames, or even the bear head emoji (Xi is compared to the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh), according to Radio Free Asia.
Extreme pressure has been put on local authorities to ensure a stable and positive environment in China during the meeting, but they have faced widespread outbursts and growing anger over the zero-COVID measures. All over China, people are reporting that they are being prevented from returning to Beijing after their Golden Week vacation. Alert messages from a mandatory health app informed users of the risk of having been in contact with the epidemic for having shared a time and place, and that they were forced to delay their return until the risk was ruled out or they had passed. seven days in a “low risk” area. For the Chinese government, around 90% of the country is now a medium or high risk area.
Even the air is controlled. On Friday, the steel industry in Hebei province was ordered to halve its output for one week. They gave no reason for the order, but when big events approach, the Chinese government often limits the activity of polluting industries to ensure clear skies.
Translation of Francisco de Zarate