China cracks down on dissent ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

Lawyers, activists and intellectuals detained as authorities attempt to silence opposition on 25th anniversary of massacre

China has jailed scores of lawyers, activists and intellectuals weeks before the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, underscoring Beijing's resolve to wipe the event from the country's collective memory.

Authorities in southern China's Guangdong province have detained five activists – Xie Wenfei, Luo Xiangyang, Wu Bin, Yang Chonghe, and Zhang Wanhe – for expressing solidarity with a sixth, Li Weiguo, as he stood trial for seeking legal permission to hold a Tiananmen-related demonstration. All have been charged with disorderly behaviour, the rights website Weiquan Wang reported on Monday.

Police in the eastern city of Hangzhou have detained Xu Guang, a 45-year-old activist, for planning a hunger strike to commemorate the killings Lu Gengsong, an author, was also held for criticising Beijing's human rights record in an online essay.

Last Wednesday, Beijing police detained Chen Guang, 43, a Beijing-based artist, soon after he privately staged a work of abstract performance art to commemorate the crackdown. Chen, a People's Liberation Army soldier at the time, was dispatched to quell the protests and much of his work draws from the experience.

China forbids open discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on 4 June 1989, in which soldiers opened fire on crowds of unarmed pro-democracy protesters, killing hundreds. Authorities strictly censor mentions of the event online. An official death count has never been released.

"The breadth and scope of the crackdown is worrying, and definitely an increase from previous years," said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher at Amnesty International. "Clearly, the government is worried that it being the 25th anniversary this year, there's a heightened sense of significance."

In the early hours of 6 May, Beijing police detained Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent human rights lawyer who helped organise the 1989 demonstration; three days prior, he had participated in a private panel discussion commemorating the massacre. Authorities accuse Pu – who has represented scores of high-profile clients, including dissident artist Ai Weiwei – of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles". About 15 people attended the event, five of whom were detained: Pu, freelance writer Liu Di, social scientist Xu Youyu, pro-democracy activist Hu Shigen, and Beijing Film Academy professor Hao Jian.

Police threatened the remaining attendees with criminal detention if they spoke to foreign media, went online, "or ever did anything similar again", according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

The state-run Global Times newspaper blamed Pu and other civil rights lawyers for supporting and joining illegal activities and harbouring "wild intentions to challenge and change the law".

Chinese law allows police to hold suspects in criminal detention for up to 30 days before the case must be dropped or handed to prosecutors.

The detentions appear to be part of a broader crackdown on free speech and dissent, as Beijing seeks to tighten its control over the internet.

On 3 May, authorities arrested Xiang Nanfu, a retired Beijing resident, for "damaging the nation's image" by posting what they claimed were false stories on Boxun, a US-based Chinese-language news aggregator. State television broadcast Xiang's admission of guilt, saying that Xiang fabricated information including a claim that the Chinese government "harvested organs from living humans and buried people alive", the state newswire Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

Last week, Beijing police confirmed the late-April arrest of 70-year-old journalist Gao Yu on suspicion of leaking state secrets. Gao was imprisoned in 1993 on the same charge for her writings during the 1989 demonstrations.

Gao appeared late last week on the state broadcaster CCTV wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. "I think what I did touched on the law and endangered the interests of the nation. What I have done was very wrong," she said in a televised interview. "I have sincerely learned my lesson."


Jonathan Kaiman in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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