China’s savage crackdown on dissidents this year reflect deep concerns about the economy and the disaffection of poorer Chinese as much as the impact of Middle Eastern revolutions, according to an Australian China expert.

The disappearance of prominent artist Ai Weiwei and the mysterious detention and release of Australian author Yang Hengjun are only two prominent cases in the recent crackdown on bloggers, activists and lawyers.

According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders website, which monitors the Chinese government’s assaults on human rights, at the end of March 29 people had been detained and another 30 disappeared in relation to anonymous calls for a Jasmine Revolution, following uprisings in the Middle East. CHRD’s Renee Xia has explained how the crackdown order was issued and how provincial agencies are using it to fatten their budgets: China’s budget for internal stability has increased more than 20% in the past 12 months, to more than $US95 billion. Simultaneously, the regime has strengthened its efforts to censor the internet, not merely through blunt mechanisms such as filtering out references to Egypt but now by interfering with private networks used to avoid its net filtering system.

The assaults, arrests and disappearances are a further retreat from the always-tenuous rule of law in China. In early March, a foreign ministry official accused dissidents of “using the law as a shield” and that “no law can protect them“. In January, Prof Jerome Cohen, of the New York University Law School, suggested that the regime of Hu Jintao had gone backwards on the rule of law in recent years.

That’s partly because lawyers are a particular target of the dictatorship. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on Friday criticised China for a wave of disappearances of students, human rights activists and lawyers. The Working Group and Cohen singled out the case of China’s best human rights lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, who has been detained, tortured and targeted for assassination by the regime, and who has not reappeared since vanishing in April last year.

But the crackdown is only the culmination of a longer attempt by the Chinese government to head off rising economic discontent, dating back to before the Olympic Games, according to Dr Ann Kent, of ANU’s College of Law. She says there’s considerable social unrest among workers and in rural communities that have failed to benefit from China’s rapid economic growth. “It’s not coming from the middle class, as had been anticipated,” Kent says, “but it’s coming from the have-nots.”

The Chinese government has been trying to address unrest by developing a universal social security system, but recent economic developments have put further pressure on the government. “They’ve got problems with inflation, they’ve had to raise their interest rates, they’re trying to bring down the cost of housing,” says Kent. “The leadership is feeling more threatened and particularly after the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution.”

The redistributive measures have also, Kent says, strengthened the hand of Party conservatives, who are more comfortable with centralised control and a harder line on freedom.

The Middle East revolutions are therefore best understood as fuelling a cocktail of stresses for the Chinese leadership. “When you have problems of inflation and social unrest and high cost of living and on top of that you have influential movements coming from other developing countries, rather than the West, the Chinese feel on their mettle.”

Kent also believes Yang Hengjun was fortunate as he was likely only released because of Julia Gillard’s pending visit to China, and suggests Gillard revisit the case of Stern Hu while there, raising the possibility of his serving his sentence in Australia. “If the Prime Minister were canny, she might try to put a little bit of pressure on by raising the question of Stern Hu, as I know the Chinese did speak at one stage of negotiating extradition, and they still consider it something that could be revived.”

This article has been corrected: Prof Jerome Cohen is from New York University Law School, not the US Council on Foreign Relations. He was speaking at the Council.

Peter Fray

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