Intellectuals vs. the masses

The arrest of a prominent journalist signals Beijing's return -- yet again -- to old-style repression.

Published December 22, 2004 4:04PM (EST)

The Chinese police arrested one of the country's most influential journalists Tuesday in the latest phase of their campaign to stifle critical discussion by prominent liberal intellectuals. The detention of Chen Min, the chief editorial writer at China Reform Magazine, has heightened concern that the Communist Party may be reverting to old-style repression to counter the spread of independent thinking on the Internet, in the universities and in the increasingly bold media organizations.

Coming after the arrest or demotion of at least half a dozen other "public intellectuals" -- a term of former media praise that has suddenly become an expression of political abuse -- it has upset the hope that President Hu Jintao will allow more freedom of expression than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Chen, who wrote under the pen name Xiao Shu, was working in his office when security officers arrived unannounced. "They went to the magazine office and took him away," an unnamed source told Reuters.

The tactic appears to be similar to that used in several other cases. On Dec. 13 three prominent reform advocates, Yu Jie, Liu Xiabo and Zhang Zuhua, were held by the police and accused of revealing state secrets to foreigners: a catchall phrase often invoked in clampdowns on critics. Two weeks earlier poet Shi Tao was arrested on his way to his mother's house and his wife was warned not to tell anyone he was missing.

Echoing past campaigns against "rightists" and "counterrevolutionary" critics, the clampdown was heralded by a furious invective against "public intellectuals" in the Liberation Daily on Nov. 23. In language observers said was reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, it accused such intellectuals of "arrogant elitism." They were trying to "estrange the relationship between the party and intellectuals and between intellectuals and the masses," said the commentary, which was reproduced in full by People's Daily, the party mouthpiece.

Shortly afterward reports emerged of a "gray list" of liberal academics and journalists whose writings were no longer allowed to be published in newspapers and magazines, all of which are controlled by the state or the party. Journalists say the propaganda department has also lengthened its list of forbidden topics, including stories about the growing gap between rich and poor and a number of big protests in the provinces.

As was the case in many previous political campaigns, the targets appear to have little in common other than a record of challenging someone in authority. Among those who have been either demoted or detained are Jiao Guobiao, a media professor at Beijing University, who accused the propaganda department of using Nazi tactics to cover up corruption and disease; Li Boguang, a lawyer who has represented farmers against the government in one of many cases of alleged illegal land seizures; and Huang Jingao, a local party official who blew the whistle on corruption among his colleagues in Fujian province.

The clampdown fits into a long cycle of loosening and tightening intellectual expression in China, the last major phase of which took place in the late 1980s and ended with the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Although most of those arrested recently have subsequently been released, making this a relatively restrained clampdown compared with the violence of previous campaigns, it has disappointed liberal supporters of President Hu. Many had expected him to loosen media restrictions after removing Jiang from the senior military post this summer. But in the face of increasingly frequent reports of unrest in the provinces and strikes in urban centers, Hu appears to have moved in the opposite direction.

By Jonathan Watts

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