While instances of violence and coercion in China are well-known overseas, they actually make up a small percentage of the total cases that are silenced in less visible ways. For every Chen Guangcheng, there are likely hundreds (thousands?) of others who never dared to speak, or shut up shortly after first opening their mouths. In a great series of papers from Kevin O’Brien and Rachel Stern, they show that China has developed a wide variety of tools for maintaining stability (the following sections are a combination of information from the papers and my own observations).
Relational Repression (link)
As O’Brien shows with a case study of an environmental protest in Zhejiang, people’s family members and friends are often mobilized to apply pressure to activists. In many cases elderly pensioners are threatened with a loss of benefits and family members holding gov’t jobs are threatened with being fired if they fail to convince the activists to stop their actions. This kind of repression is especially trying because of the psychological pressure it applies to the individual, not only are they risking their own safety but their family’s as well (and we all know how important family is in China).
In virtually every case of well-known dissidents, their families have suffered. In Chen’s case his wife and daughter were imprisoned in their home with him. After his escape his extended relatives have continued to be harassed and threatened by local officials, most notably his nephew Chen Kegui. This can only be seen as an attempt to continue to apply pressure to Chen Guangcheng, even though he is now out of the country.
Another way that activists are kept in line is by making the boundaries unclear. As Rachel Stern demonstrates in her papers, this murkiness leads to self-censorship and caution with a very minimal amount of work by central authorities. Some regions encourage reporting on environmental problems while similar stories can lead to serious punishments in other regions. This causes many lawyers and journalists to completely avoid supposedly “risky” issues. Furthermore, topics that are unsafe can cause problems retroactively, so while it may currently be safe to discuss certain issues, it may not be so in the future.
As we learned last year through Wikileaks, Twitter may have very well been blocked because of the BeijingAIR twitter feed rather than its ability to spread information, and Google may have suddenly been blocked because of one official unhappy with the results he found when searching his own name. These rare glimpses behind the scenes are a reminder that even when we think we know where the line might be, there could be something else pushing the resolve.
Additionally, because punishments are rarely explained activists draw their own conclusions from events. These conclusions may be far more restrictive than whatever the actual reason may have been. For example, Stern cites a pervasive rumor that the PSB in Beijing has a color coded list of foreign funding organization broken in to green (safe), yellow (somewhat-safe), and red (dangerous). The speculation of which organizations fall into which category has led many groups to refuse funding from sources that may very well be safe. According to figures from international rights groups, only .2% of Chinese lawyers and journalists face jail time, but the parables others draw from these punishments create much larger ripples through their professions. As one source told Stern, the arrest of the managing editor of the Southern Metropolis Daily in retribution for their coverage of SARS, led to a cooling effect on investigative journalism throughout the country.
Internalizing the unwritten rules
In my short time working with Yaxue Cao and others on sensitive issues, these methods have featured prominently in our discussions when we’ve posted such material. I asked if she had family here that could face repercussions, we’ve tried to figure out how close to get to the line (we don’t even know if we’ve crossed it, we seem to be blocked in parts of China), and we’ve drawn dark lessons for ourselves from what’s happened to the activists we consider friends. Even though these tools were never made explicit, one can’t help but internalizing them after reading through numerous cases online.
What has surprised me even more is the way in which this system is self-propagating. Friends from the U.S. tell me to be careful, co-workers remind that posts could endanger their work, others remind me that my visa could be taken away, and my parents ask what would happen to my career if I am ever blocked from returning to China (I’m sure every blogger in China has faced these questions at some point). Do I really think I’m in any real danger? No, but the thing with fear is that fear isn’t rational. Fear isn’t something that can be controlled, no matter how foolish you tell yourself it is. In the end Yaxue always reminds me that the risk others have taken are much bigger and I click “publish*” (Ge Xun calls this “shared courage”), but my irrational brain whispers in my ear, “Easy for her to say, she doesn’t live here.”
Having a deeper understanding of these tools though helps activists understand and weigh their choices when seeking change. When a name is given to a tool, like “relational repression” and “control parables,” it gives one a sense of regaining control over their emotions and the resolve to continue on.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the recent protest in Shifang, and look at how these different methods of control failed to suppress the protesters, and how they may actually be beneficial for activists.
*I’m proud to say that we have never cancelled, delayed, or altered a post out of fear.