Friday, September 29, 2006

China Cracks Down

The five-year filmmaking ban imposed by Chinese authorities on director Lou Ye [for a love story set during the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations] is just the latest signal from Beijing that its tolerance for even minor signs of dissent has shrunk dramatically. The last 18 months have seen a growing number of arrests, detentions, prison sentences and other measures apparently aimed at heading off greater freedom of expression, not just in the arts, but in religion, the Internet and both the foreign and state-run media.

Blind public interest lawyer Chen Guangcheng found himself on the receiving end of a four-year, three-month sentence last week. He was charged with obstructing traffic and damaging property. Chen, who is best known for his work on behalf of women forced to undergo abortions or sterilizations. Chen has repeatedly angered local party officials in Linyi, particularly through his revelations about the forced sterilization program.

Recent months have also seen a tightening of control over religious affairs. In early July, respected preacher and religious activist Zhang Rongliang was jailed for seven and a half years on a pointedly non-religious charge: forging a passport. Later the same month, 82-year-old underground Catholic bishop Yao Liang was arrested along with another priest, according to Catholic activists. And on July 29 the resort city of Hangzhou was the site of what some witnesses call the biggest confrontation between security forces and Christians, a bloody clash over the demolition of a church involving thousands of protesters and police.

China watchers remain divided about just how centrally coordinated such actions are. Some speculate that China's President Hu Jintao is putting on a show of strength to bolster his relatively weak grip on the reins of power; the crackdown is seen as clearing the decks of potentially embarrassing dissenters before Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in the summer of 2008. The Chinese authorities are particularly sensitive to media coverage in periods leading up to major events like the Games.

Whatever the reasons behind them, though, there is little doubt that the jailings and other measures are having a chilling impact. "Of course it makes us scared," says one Christian who witnessed the clash at Hangzhou. "We call it killing the chicken to scare the monkey. They are using us as an example so that other Christians in the rest of the country are obedient."

[Excerpted from TIME Asia]

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