Dissent in China is not something new. A long tradition of political dissent is an integral part of Chinese history and owes much to Confucianism and Daoism. Despite the fact that Confucianism and the state has been historically fraught with conflict and tensions, the same Confucian doctrines that provided moral justifications for state control and power were also used against cruel and tyrannical rulers who could not deliver honest, compassionate and conscientious rule.

 

Despite the long history, fact remains that dissent is met with a heavy hand in contemporary China. The number of crackdowns for safeguarding security have been criticised severely in the country, and critics have even resorted to citing ancient writings to voice their opposition to the government's campaign. In 2013, police in Guangzhou warned against the crackdown becoming a "nightmare" in a microblog post, which obviously was deleted just the way innumerable posts that state anything which could be treated as a threat to the security of the nation were deleted.

 

In one of his publications, Song Huichang, a Professor at the Communist Party of China (CPC)'s Central Party School in Beijing compared some cadres with King Li of the Zhou dynasty. Li was the 10th king of the Zhou dynasty, who enacted a new law allowing him to punish anyone, by death, who dared to speak against him. Li was eventually sent into exile by his soldiers and peasants who revolted against him, and he died in exile. Professor Song further stated, "No matter what era, do not think that by holding onto power, one can do whatever one likes and gag the people's voices".

 

Events in 2013 and 2014 reveal newer methodologies being resorted to by the state to crush dissent. In August last year, Zhang Xuezhong, a lecturer at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai was banned from teaching after being told that one of his published articles was "in violation of laws on teachers". Apparently, Document 9 is known to all academicians, and Zhang's article violated it. This document bans seven topics from being discussed in university classrooms in China, with discussion of 'Western constitutional democracy' heading the taboo list. In brief, the seven topics are as follows:

 

  1. 1. Promoting Western Constitutional Democracy: An attempt to undermine the current leadership and the 'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics' system of governance.

 

  1. 2. Promoting "universal values" in an attempt to weaken the theoretical foundations of the Party's leadership.

 

  1. 3. Promoting civil society in an attempt to dismantle the ruling Party’s social foundation.

 

  1. 4. Promoting neoliberalism, attempting to change China's Basic Economic System.

 

  1. 5. Promoting the West's idea of journalism, challenging China's principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.

 

  1. 6. Promoting historical nihilism, trying to undermine the history of the CPC and of New China.

 

  1. 7. Questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.

 

In August 2013, a government sponsored conference issued "seven bottom lines" on the use of social media, warning netizens not to harm the economy, the state or individuals.   Soon after, six of China's biggest websites including Sina Weibo and Baidu launched a joint website designed to highlight and correct online rumours. After a few days, the Global Times newspaper stated that it had collected more than 1,00,000 statements on online rumours. In its attempt to root out "online mongering", a number of arrests have also been made.

 

Charles Xue Biqun, a well known Chinese- American investor and outspoken social media commentator, who is popular as Xue Manzi, was detained by Beijing police for suspected involvement in prostitution in August 2013. However, speculations are high as to how the increasing arrests and the campaign against rumour mongering is a part of a balancing act by the Party leadership since Bo Xilai’s trial for corruption and abuse of power began. In March 2012, China shut down 16 websites, and detained six people for spreading rumours of a coup coinciding with Bo's trial. The moves underlined official anxieties ahead of the power transition in the CPC in 2012, especially after Bo's sacking led to widespread speculation about infighting at the top most levels of the Party.

 

In Shanxi province, 23 people had been apparently arrested by Aug 15, 2013 and 27 websites were shut down. The individuals and websites are suspected of releasing false information online, using the internet to blackmail others, or engaging in internet-based fraud. The Chinese state media reported on August 21 the same year, that the Beijing Police detained and launched criminal investigations against four people to "eradicate breeding ground for internet rumours". Apparently, Erma, a Beijing-based internet marketing company spread rumours about poor governance and official corruption in China to increase their influence on social media and to gain monetary benefits. The rumours allegedly spread by the company include those on the government offering higher compensation to three foreign victims compared to Chinese victims killed in the 2011 train crash in Wenzhou; defaming the image of Lei Feng, a revolutionary hero; harming the reputation of the Chinese Red Cross with the alleged wealth scandal of Guo Meimei, a woman who claimed to have links with the organisation. The company has been shut down.

 

In Jiangsu province, a similar situation prevailed on August 25, when prosecutors approved the arrest of Zhou Lubao on charges of extortion linked to spreading internet based rumours. Zhou, prior to his arrest, has frequently gone online to report about officials. The rationale behind his detention, as stated by Suzhou police is "on suspicion of blackmail and fabricating information about a terrorist attack". Closer observation reveals that the ones allegedly spreading rumours have been linked with China's most prominent advocates of political reform. On August 26, 2013, Shanghai police's detained a man suspected of fabricating online rumours about a female executive at the State owned oil giant Sinopec. Arrested, Fu Xuesheng, aged 47 and the President of Shanghai LabInfo Technologies Ltd., also faces an allegation of spreading rumours that a police chief accepted more than 2 billion Yuan in bribes and murdered an entrepreneur. . 

 

A few other arrests in 2013 include those of Yang Hui, a 16 year old on September 9, 2013, Dong Rubin who heads an internet consulting company on September 10, Dong Liangjie, an internet opinion leader on September 28, 2013, Liu Hu, a journalist in Guangzhou on September 30 and Wang Liming, a cartoonist in Beijing on October 16, 2013. Yang had questioned the police account of the mysterious death of a karaoke bar owner in Gansu, and had suggested that people should protest against the local government. According to Dong Rubin's lawyer Zhou Ze, the government was reacting against his client "because he detailed specific allegations against a wide range of officials, including many senior ones, across many provinces". Dong was well known for participation in an online probe in 2009 into the mystery shrouded death of a man in a detention house in Yunnan. Dong Liangjie had written that faucets sold in China contain high levels of lead, being a fierce critic of the pollution plaguing the country. Liu of the newspaper 'New Express' was arrested on charges of defamation when he accused government officials of corruption. Wang had forwarded a microblog post about a stranded mother holding a baby that had starved to death in the flood hit city of Yuyao. All these mentioned individuals along with hundreds of others have flouted the guidelines against rumour mongering, announced on September 9, 2013 by the Supreme Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

 

In January 2014, a legal scholar, Xu Zhiyong was jailed, and had been sentenced by a Beijing court to four years in prison on charges of gathering a crowd to disturb public order. Through his lawyer Zhang Qingfang, Xu stated that "the last dignity of Chinese law has been destroyed". Xu is the most prominent activist jailed since Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiabo had been arrested in 2009. On April 17 2014, Qin Zhihui, one of China's hundreds of bloggers was jailed for three years, guilty of "slander" and "picking up quarrels and provoking troubles", as stated by China's CCTV. Another in the round of latest arrests for disrupting 'order' and for 'creating trouble' (寻衅滋事 - xunxin zishi) in 2014 was that of Shenzhen labour activist Lin Dong. The arrest was made on April 22, and Lin is currently under a 30 days' detention at the Dongguan Municipal Detention. In 2014 again, a month ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Chinese authorities have intensified crackdowns on dissent. Prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, whose clients have included Ai Weiwei, was detained on May 5. The charges were "suspicion of causing a disturbance", as stated by the Beijing Police.

 

For China, these crackdowns launched last year are aimed at maintaining social order, but as stated by rights groups, these clearly limit freedom of speech online and are done in a bid to protect the ruling Communist Party. The government devotes huge resources to suppressing dissent and to maintaining internal stability. In 2012, Beijing spent US$ 111 billion on its domestic security budget which covers the police, state security, militia, courts and jails. Also, the government currently employs around two million people who work as online monitors to maintain social stability. This two million outnumbers the country's 1.5 million active military personnel. Critics call it the "era of stability maintenance", which prizes internal stability above everything else. A few others evoke Mao Zedong's concept of 'walking on two legs', and state that for the Chinese government today, trying to deepen stagnant economic reform is one leg, while clamping down on heretical ideas is the other. Deng Xiaoping had criticised the penchant to crack down on rumours, and had stated that problems related to people's thoughts should not be handled by suppressing them. As is clearly visible in today's scenario, despite the resources spent, dissent is clearly increasing, and what the government actually needs to is take a cue from history and reconsider its level of retaliation against dissent.

 

Amidst the challenges of low employment levels, especially for young university graduates, massive environmental hazards including air and water pollution, slowing economic growth, rising property prices, rapidly increasing urbanisation and associated problems, food safety issues among hordes of other issues, it becomes essential for the CPC that it addresses the concerns of the common Chinese. However, repeated rounds of reforms and restructuring of the economy have failed so far as to satisfy the expectations of the people. As a result of this, protests are increasing at a rapid rate. While there are ones who take to the streets physically, there are others who use the internet as a tool to express dissent. Thus the internet has become a major tool to express opinion, which is not tolerable for the government, and is seen as a potent tool to destabilise the very stability the CPC deems essential for governance. Thus, just the way the citizens seek newer methods to express themselves and their concerns, so does the government by seeking newer methods of quelling anything that it sees as 'unrest'.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.