First the police crippled Chinese rights attorney Ni Yulan’s (倪玉蘭) legs. Then the authorities took away her license to practice law. Later, while serving time in jail, demolition crews tore down the courtyard house that had been in her family for two generations.
Freed from prison in 2010, but unable to walk, she ended up living in a Beijing park with her husband for nearly two months, until unflattering publicity led local officials to move them into a cheap hotel.
Their predicament will most likely take a turn for the worse in the coming weeks, when a court in the capital’s Xicheng district is expected to sentence the couple on charges that include “picking quarrels” and disturbing public order.
“I’m afraid the sentence this time will be especially heavy,” their lawyer, Cheng Hai (程海), said after their hearing on Dec. 28.
The trial of Ni and her husband, Dong Jiqin (董繼勤), capped a particularly grim year for Chinese dissidents and human rights advocates. In recent weeks, two veteran activists, Chen Wei (陳衛) and Chen Xi (陳西), have been given long sentences for essays criticizing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Late last month, the authorities announced that Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), a prominent rights lawyer, would have to spend an additional three years in prison for allegedly violating the terms of his probation.
Unaddressed in the terse official statement was how Gao, who had spent the previous 20 months in the custody of public security agents, had broken the law.
Although the government has long restricted the work and words of opponents, its tolerance has diminished further since February last year, when unrest in the Arab world unnerved senior leaders. Dozens of rights lawyers and intellectuals have been detained, countless others have been subjected to heightened police surveillance and propaganda officials have sought to tighten controls on the Internet.
The artist and critic Ai Weiwei (艾未未), who disappeared for more than two months, is still battling tax-evasion charges, an accusation he says is designed to silence him.
“The government seems to be going in only one direction, which is more control and harsher punishment against political dissidents,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Nicholas Bequelin said. “This is a reflection of the broader atmosphere in China, which is more conservative and hard-line.”
Bequelin and other analysts say they suspect the space for dissent will only narrow this year. There is the coming change in leadership, a transition that takes place once every decade, as well as the specter of an economic slowdown that party leaders worry could exacerbate social tensions.
Prognosticating in China is always a risky endeavor, but there are signs that the CCP is girding itself for battle.
In the most recent edition of the party publication Seeking Truth, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) warned the nation about those hoping to bring China down, notably “hostile international powers,” a term often used to describe human rights advocates and their foreign sympathizers.
“We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them,” he said.
Officials are already preparing a new legal bludgeon against perceived troublemakers: a pending revision of the criminal code that would allow the police to secretly detain for six months those accused of “endangering national security,” a catchall designation often wielded against political offenders.