China’s Emerging Civil Society Prompts Fresh Media Crackdowns

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MARK RALSTON / AFP / GettyImages

Chinese police check the identity of a journalist in Beijing

Together with his neighbors, journalist Chen Baocheng had been involved in a long-running land-confiscation dispute with the local authorities in Pingdu, a city of about 1.3 million people in the northeastern Chinese province of Shandong. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 10, an anguished post appeared on his Weibo feed (Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of microblogging service Twitter).

“We have caught a suspect who demolished our neighbor’s house illegally yesterday,” he posted. “We called local police, however they refused to place this on file.” Chen, who ironically covered judicial and law-enforcement news for the Beijing-based Caixin media group, then grew worried that he would be arrested by the police instead, on the grounds that he had detained one of the demolition crew who had torn down his neighbor’s home.

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That’s exactly what happened. At 3 p.m. the same day, Chen’s wife posted on Chen’s Weibo account the news that he’d been arrested. The detention was widely reported by Chinese media and became a trending topic on Weibo. One user summed up the feelings of many in a post: “Pay attention to Chen Baocheng. Nowadays, if you belong to the powerless masses, your rights may be trampled by the public organizations at any time. In order to protect yourself, in order to give your offspring a fair and righteous future, we should help Chen.”

Chen’s case is just the latest episode in a series of recent clashes between Chinese journalists and the police. Since June, there have been at least four high-profile detentions or abductions of journalists by police — and the country’s burgeoning civil-society movement is the catalyst, explains Du Bin, a journalist who has himself been in detention and was only recently released. “With the help of Weibo,” he says, “people are getting more opportunity to learn what is happening around them, they are more actively voicing their views and protecting their civil rights, and that’s why more and more people are colliding with the government.” Journalists, perhaps unsurprisingly, are in the forefront of those confrontations.

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Du’s detention took place on May 31, a few days before the 24th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, when he was taken away by Beijing police on a charge of “provoking social disturbances.” A week before he was arrested, Du had published a book about Hong Kong’s response to the Tiananmen movement. (The then British colony was an important source of support for the student protests, in terms of raising funds, harboring protesters and dissidents on the run, and disseminating news about the protests to other parts of China, which were under a news blackout at the time.) Du had also made a documentary alleging torture and inhuman conditions at Masanjia — a notorious “re-education” camp for female prisoners in Liaoning province.

On Aug. 2, Chen Min, a veteran journalist who had been demanding the release of jailed human-rights activist Xu Zhiyong, was taken into custody by Beijing police and forcibly banished to his home in Guangdong province. Chen is a member of the New Citizen Movement, a loose coalition of lawyers, academics and liberals established by Xu that aims to promote constitutionalism and a civil society. After he returned home, Chen wrote an open letter, calling on the government to grant people “freedom from terror.”

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It isn’t just liberal journalists who are being detained. On Aug. 7, Song Yangbiao, a weekly current-affairs journalist and supporter of Bo Xilai, was held in custody by Beijing police after he called on citizens to gate-crash the trial of the disgraced Chinese politician. Song, a famously obstinate Maoist (who once said the only mistake Mao Zedong made was to be “too lenient” toward right-wingers and liberals), was charged with “provoking trouble and picking quarrels.”

“The Chinese government thinks it has given its subjects enough freedom, however it has not realized that … people expect more civil rights and liberties. People’s expectation of civil rights has outpaced what the government can tolerate, that is why many people, especially journalists, feel they are being suppressed by the government,” says Du.

The recent crackdown has persuaded many Chinese journalists that they need to band together. He Guangwei, a colleague of Song, has proposed the establishment of a journalist alliance. “China does not have a press law, while the media are controlled by the government,” he tells TIME. “As a result we do not have sufficient protection when we run into trouble. I hope by establishing an alliance we can protect ourselves by retaining lawyers.”

Although Du has been released, he is still worried about his safety. “Now I’m on bail for a year,” he says, “which means that from now until July 8, 2014, the police can arrest me at any time for any excuse they want.”

The same would appear to be true for all Chinese journalists, whether they’re on bail or not.

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