Xiao Shu in this piece comparing the 2001 incarceration of fellow Chinese journalist, Yang Zili, and the detention of his colleagues today from the Transition Institute, explores the deeper psychological cause driving the country’s “stability-obsessed regime”: a paranoia so institutionalized that it drives state power compulsively. A must read.
The most basic forms of dissident activity—petitioning, holding up a placard—can bring the secret police to one’s door, even if the act is little more than a web post. The fate of the Transition Institute couldn’t be more normal and predictable in an abnormal society.
All of this flies in the face of rule of law. The clear character of rule of law is the stability of the law, the reliability of the law for the people. But when a patient suffers from paranoia, it is impossible to predict their actions. …
Ending official paranoia is imperative if China is to return to reason and to the logic of rule of law.
Chinese journalist Yang Zili first appeared in international headlines in 2001 after being arrested in Beijing and charged with “subverting state authority.” His crime was starting the “New Youth Society,” a salon with the stated mission of “seeking a road for social reform.” Mr. Yang eventually served eight years in prison for his involvement.
Once released from prison, Mr. Yang joined the Transition Institute. Unlike many other nongovernmental organizations in China, the Transition Institute isn’t engaged in direct social action but rather focuses on research work as a think tank. While there, Mr. Yang studied Chinese social issues and proved to be a prolific writer. Much of his work was on equal access to education and migrant-worker rights. His friends applauded his return to the public sphere within a profession that still allowed him to promote social change.
We had no idea how quickly the tide would turn. Mr. Yang is now in hiding. Chinese authorities last year detained three leaders of the Transition Institute and six people indirectly involved, including the lawyer Xia Lin. The organization remains paralyzed. It suffered this fate despite having a far more nuanced understanding of political struggle than did the New Youth Society in 2001.
The similarities and differences between these two cases reflect the deep uncertainty that all Chinese citizens face when confronted with contemporary “socialist rule of law.”
The New Youth Society focused on hot-button social issues like government corruption, unemployment among workers from state-owned enterprises, and rural development. Members were at first split over what to do with their activities. Either they could operate in secret, attempting to disguise their group from the authorities, or they could be entirely open, affirming their discussions in hopes of avoiding the impression they were being covert. Mr. Yang and others compromised: They didn’t actively promote their ideas, nor did they conceal them.
Mr. Yang later conceded that he and his compatriots had no understanding of just how brutal political struggles can be under the authoritarian banner of “proletarian dictatorship.” Their trial was closed to the public, and even Li Yuzhou, an undercover officer involved in their arrest, believed their sentences were excessive. There was no independent judicial system at work; there was only politics.
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