Pre-Conference Jitters….and Torture

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It’s common knowledge in Beijing that the police get very, very uptight before big political meetings. Every spring before the National People’s Congress, dissidents are harassed and hundreds of sad petitioners rounded up from their hovels and forcibly sent back to their home provinces. This is my first time in Beijing before the mother of all political powwows, the Communist Party National Conference and I knew that there would be a pretty severe crackdown to ensure no “undesirable elements” were around to cause trouble. After all, this meeting only happens once every five years and for politics in China it’s like the Olympics and World Cup rolled into one. Policy is decided for the next five years, top jobs are handed out, the losers get dumped and the winners glow. Given the importance of the occasion, it’s no surprise that the police are even more tense than usual. We’ve already seen some signs of just how careful security types are being to ensure a smooth conference. Scores of websites have been shut down and policing of the web tightened to such and extent that some bloggers have closed down in protest at being “harmonized” so often until the conference is over. Petitioners have not only been rounded up but the “Petitioners Village” near the Beijing south train station was actually demolished. Now comes the news that several human rights lawyers have been severely harassed. First was Gao Zhicheng, who reportedly was jailed in late September after calling for greater freedom of speech and called the upcoming Beijing 2008 Games the “Handcuff Olympics.” Then, on September 29th –the day before National Day, which is surely no coincidence–the mild mannered Li Heping (I wrote about him previously in connection with the Chen Guangcheng case) was kidnapped by a group of about a dozen men in plain clothes and tortured. The men, who never identified themselves, stripped him to his underpants and beat him with cattle prods. When they were beating him, Li says they repeated: “Get out of Beijing. You can’t be a lawyer in Beijing.” After several hours of this, they took him to a remote suburb and dumped him there. Li, who sounds remarkably calm about the whole thing, got himself checked out in a hospital and says he’s ok, though still a bit sore.

Li’s case, sadly, isn’t unusual, But it made me think again about how the system works and how dysfunctional it sometimes seems. In particular, it seems as though the enforcers on the ground are always willing, even eager, to resort to force when it is neither necessary nor productive. I remember when we visited the former senior Party official Bao Tong, who was jailed and then under house arrest for years after 1989 (he was then Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang’s political secretary). He described how he and his wife wanted to go to Zhao’s funeral last year but the officers watching him refused permission. When he and his wife tried to leave anyway, they were knocked over and dragged back to their apartment. Bao’s wife injured her back and spent months getting treatment. This kind of brutality towards an elderly couple in their 70s doesn’t make sense. I guess you could argue that torturing someone with a cattle prod might get results and thus makes some sense. But from what I know of Li it won’t do much except make him more determined. In reply to a question about whether he would do what the men wanted, leave Beijing, Li’s answer was simple: “My office is in Beijing, My home is in Beijing. I’m definitely going to stay in Beijing.”