Chinese and US officials are polishing off scripts for a ritual that was set to unfold in Washington yesterday and today. During a meeting known as the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, they will smile across conference tables and talk about cooperating on a range of issues: trade, currency, North Korea.
However, that kind of theater seems more removed from events within China than at any time in recent years. In the past three months, some significant foreign groups have been subjected to intensifying pressure from the authorities, reflecting growing fears about the influence of foreigners and Western liberal ideas.
Good will between the US and China is scarce. At the meetings this week, the Americans are expected to talk bluntly about human rights, while the Chinese government has already ratcheted up its criticism of the West, with some officials telling foreign diplomats that they believe the US is fomenting revolution.
At least 60 activities organized by the US embassy in Beijing — including cultural forums, school programs, ambassadorial visits — were canceled between February and last month because of -interference by the Chinese authorities, and some European missions have been similarly pressured. Several university conferences involving foreigners have been canceled, and the Ministry of Education is stepping up warnings to Chinese academics heading abroad that they not take part in “anti-China” activities or engage with groups that promote democracy.
The scrutiny has applied to some nonprofit groups, too, with several — particularly those that receive financing from the US government or the EU — being visited more frequently by tax officials.
At the same time, China has waged its harshest crackdown on liberal speech in years: hundreds of Chinese have been detained, imprisoned, beaten, interrogated or put under house arrest.
The government had for years guarded against Western influences, including blocking sites like Twitter and Facebook, but those restrictions have intensified since revolts began sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. The clampdown is concentrated on foreign groups or activities that have significant ties to foreign governments, run prominent outreach programs, encourage free speech or promote Internet freedom.
Senior Chinese officials appear to believe that the US in particular helped set off and sustain the uprisings that toppled dictators in the Arab world. In mid-February, messages appeared on the Chinese Internet calling for people to hold similar protests across the nation. Some of the people spreading word of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution” are Chinese who live overseas. One message called for Chinese to protest on Feb. 20 at a McDonald’s outlet on Wangfujing, a popular shopping street in Beijing, and the government became concerned when Jon Huntsman Jr, who was then the US ambassador to China, appeared that afternoon outside the restaurant.
Embassy officials said Huntsman, who left his job at the end of last month, was not aware of the calls for a protest, but the Chinese government quickly began canceling outreach activities sponsored by the US embassy. That included one-time appearances by Huntsman in cities and regularly scheduled education programs in which US officials meet with students, according to interviews with foreigners and Chinese.