Is it a Duck?

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China’s vast and opaque system of government sometimes makes it difficult for even experienced China hands (a category by the way to which I sadly cannot claim membership) to agree on what’s going on. There has been debate for some time, for example, over whether a deliberate, central government ordered crackdown on dissent is underway. Evidence cited includes a range of arrests and jailing of journalists, bloggers, activists, religious figures and public interest lawyers over the last 18 months. Because these cases are often initiated by local government officials, though, it remains unclear whether or not the central government has a direct hand. Sometimes, as in the case of the blind activist Chen Guangcheng, it actually seems surprising that the central government doesn’t intervene to stop the jailing of an internationally known activist on what appear to be embarrassingly obviously trumped up charges (after angering officials through his advocacy of victims of a forced abortion campaign, Chen was jailed for four years in prison for, among other things, supposedly organizing a crowd to disrupt public order, specifically, traffic). Anyway, today brings an announcement that President Hu Jintao has called for the party to “purify” the internet. This news comes after weeks of debate about whether the government will issue new regulations require the growing number of bloggers (around 3 million active) to register with their real names, a move that now seems certain. There are also indications the government intends to control the posting of satirical videos called egao on Chinese versions of youtube like and (No coincidence incidentally, that the latest figures show a rise in the number of internet users in China to 137 million.) Probably no coincidence either that those pieces of news came on the heels of several other announcements relating to freedom of expression. Earlier this month, the state publishing authority, General Administration of Press and Publication, announced that it was banning eight books. All eight are by intellectuals and are reflections on social and historical events. The Beijing city government meanwhile said a few days ago that it planned to introduce new regulations to control artists. In particular the director of the city’s Culture Bureau said that regulations would ensure that the thriving art community’s works conformed to “traditional” norms of beauty, a scary phrase to emerge from the mouth of a bureaucrat. All this is taking place ahead of the Communist Party’s five-yearly, all important party congress (something like general elections and party conventions rolled into one) coming up later this year, an event invariably preceded by a tightening of control over most aspects of Chinese society,

As the hackneyed expression goes, if it walks like a ducks, flaps like a duck and quacks like a duck… probably is a duck. Even though the judgment comes from a relative novice, I think it is fair to say that this particular quacking, waddling, befeathered animal is definitely a crackdown.