Dec 9, 2010

On eve of Nobel ceremony, China cracks down and lashes out

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 9, 2010

BEIJING, Dec. 9 - Restaurant and bar owners in China have been summoned to local police stations and warned against allowing large gatherings on Friday. Some lawyers, writers and academics have been stopped at airports from boarding their flights; others have been forcibly taken to the countryside. Known activists are under house arrest. And today, several foreign media Web sites and television stations were blocked.
Chinese police have said they were taking these actions to guard against a threat to national security. The threat, apparently, is the 54-year-old bespectacled intellectual Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence in China's northern Liaoning province for the crime of "inciting subversion of state power."
Liu in October was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Since neither Liu nor any of his family members are being allowed to leave China to attend Friday's ceremony in Oslo, the Nobel committee organizers said he will be represented by an empty chair.
It will be the first time the award will not be presented to the laureate since 1935, when imprisoned German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was prevented by the Nazi regime from attending.
China's Communist government has lashed out ferociously since the award was announced, each day ratcheting up the rhetoric. Foreign embassies in Norway have been warned not to attend the Nobel ceremony or risk unspoken "consequences." China has already broken off trade talks with Norway. The foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, denounced the Nobel committee members as "clowns" and accused them of "orchestrating an anti-China farce."
Thursday's edition of the Global Times newspaper - the English-language tabloid published by the ruling Communist party's main mouthpiece, People's Daily - continued the drumbeat of criticism, in a lead editorial that asked, "Is there a 'plot' among the Western countries against China?"
"The West has shown great creativity in conspiring against China," the editorial said. It added, "the West has not ceased harassing China with all kinds of tricks like the Nobel Peace Prize."
But for all the fury directed outwardly, the fiercest reaction has been internal. Scores of activists, lawyers, professors -- even the family members and aging parents of jailed dissidents - have been prohibited from leaving the country in recent days, or placed under house arrest, with their telephone and Internet lines cut. As the date of the Nobel ceremony drew closer, some were also told not to speak to reporters.
Mao Yushi, one of China's foremost economists, was prevented from boarding a flight last week to attend an academic conference in Singapore, even though he protested that he had no visa for Norway and no plans to attend the Nobel ceremony.
He and other activists said the Chinese government's harsh crackdown has had one unintended, opposite effect - that of visibly underscoring the need for political reform that Liu was awarded the prize for championing.
"This way of doing things is stupid and the government actually is losing face by doing it, " Mao said. "I applaud Liu's award. This incident of not allowing me to go abroad just proves why it makes sense that Liu got the award."
Ai Wei Wei, an outspoken artist often critical of government policies, was stopped at Beijing's airport after he had already gone through immigration and was seated in the waiting room about to board a flight to South Korea. He said the police officers who removed him from the airport had a document saying he might violate national security if allowed to travel abroad.
"They limit lawful citizens from leaving," Ai said. "That means this nation by definition is a jail."
He added, "If the Chinese people …don't know why this prize should be given to Liu Xiaobo, now they should understand."
A member of the Beijing film academy was prevented from traveling to a film festival in Italy. Lawyers were blocked from attending an international lawyers meeting in London.
"The obsessive focus on preventing activists from traveling to Oslo is completely irrational," Renee Xia, the international director of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in an emailed statement. "The more people are barred from leaving the country, and the harder the government works to stifle news of the Nobel ceremony domestically, the more meaning the event takes on for the curious ordinary Chinese."
Xia said many of China's 400 million-plus Internet users would find ways to circumvent the government's "Great Fire Wall" censorship controls to follow news of the Nobel ceremony on-line.
Earlier Thursday, Web sites of the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC), Cable News Network (CNN), Channel 4 in Britain, and Norwegian television NRK all were blocked, preventing live streaming. Thursday night, BBC went off the air for televisions that have satellite dishes.
In addition to those barred from leaving China, some have been told to leave Beijing - and forcibly taken away when they refused.
Tang Jitian, a human rights lawyer, said four Beijing security policemen forced him into a car while he was on his way to the hospital. Together with security policemen from his hometown of Yanbian, the officers sent him on a night flight back to northeastern China.
"The present situation is very tense, and you have to leave Beijing," Tabg recalled the police telling him. Interviewed by telephone from Yanbian, Tang said the local police warned him not to return to Beijing for now.
Some Beijing café and restaurant owners have been warned by police not to allow any Nobel celebrations or demonstrations at their establishments, not to take any bookings of large groups of Chinese for Friday evening, and to be especially watchful of people coming in carrying banners.
One café owner, who asked not to be quoted by name, was called to the local police station in the Gulou, or Drum Tower, area, and warned that "overseas reactionary forces" might try to "instigate" some actions on Friday night.
Seeking to discredit the Nobel prize, a previously unknown group with links to China's ministry of culture held a hastily called ceremony in a hotel Thursday to award the first "Confucian Peace Prize," which the organizers said was a response to the Nobel being awarded to Liu.
The winner of the Confucian Peace Prize was Taiwanese former vice-president Lien Chan, who the group said beat out Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former South African president Nelson Mandela, among others.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 402-to-1 on Wednesday for a resolution praising Liu Xiaobo. At a regularly scheduled briefing Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said the U.S. resolution "confuses right and wrong, and flagrantly interferes in China's internal affairs."
Jiang said American lawmakers should "change their arrogant and unreasonable attitude."
China's foreign ministry has boasted that the peace prize has been discredited because a large number of countries agree with China and will boycott the ceremony. So far, China has listed 18 other countries not attending, including fellow Communist regimes Cuba and Vietnam; Arab monarchies and authoritarian regimes including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia; and China's allies Venezuela, Pakistan, Sudan, and neighboring Russia and Kazakhstan. Iran, Colombia and Ukraine also said their ambassadors will not attend.
The biggest surprise on the no-show list was the Philippines, whose newly-elected president, Benigno ("Noynoy") Aquino III, is the son of the slain opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.
Aquino Jr. was a political prisoner during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship. The current president's mother, Corazon C. Aquino, was elected president and became known as an icon of democracy.
The U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch sharply criticized the Philippines' decision.