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For China dissidents, no room to maneuver Government’s hard line expected to intensify as it prepares for ‘struggles’

January 6, 2012

The International Herald Tribune Asia Edition (The International Herald Tribune - Asia Pacific edition)
 Tuesday, January 03, 2012


 First the police broke Ni Yulan’s legs. Then the authorities took away her license to practice law. By that time, she was in prison, and demolition crews made quick work of the courtyard house that had been in her family for two generations. Released from jail in 2010 and using a wheelchair, she was forced to live in a Beijing park with her husband, Dong Jiqin, for nearly two months until unflattering publicity led local officials to move them into a cheap hotel. Their predicament will probably take a turn for the worse this month, when a court in the capital’s Xicheng district is expected to sentence the couple on charges that include ‘‘picking quarrels’’ and disturbing public order. ‘‘I’m afraid the sentence this time will be especially heavy,’’ their lawyer, Cheng Hai, said after their hearing Thursday. The two-day closed trial of Ms. Ni and Mr. Dong capped a particularly grim year for Chinese dissidents and rights advocates.

 In recent weeks, two veteran activists, Chen Wei and Chen Xi, have been given long sentences for essays criticizing the ruling Communist Party. Late last month, the authorities announced that Gao Zhisheng, a long-persecuted rights lawyer, would have to spend an additional three years in prison for violating the terms of his probation. Unaddressed in the terse official statement was how Mr. Gao, who had spent the previous 20 months in police custody, had broken the law. Although the government has long restricted the work and words of perceived enemies, its authoritarian impulses have intensified since last February, when public unrest in the Arab world spooked senior leaders into action.

 Dozens of rights lawyers and intellectuals have been taken into custody, countless others have been subjected to heightened police surveillance, and propaganda officials have sought to tighten controls on the Internet. The artist and critic Ai Weiwei, who disappeared for more than two months, is still battling tax-evasion charges, an accusation he says is designed to silence him. ‘‘The government seems to be going in only one direction, which is more control and harsher punishment against political dissidents,’’ said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘‘This is a reflection of the broader atmosphere in China, which is more conservative and hard-line.’’ Mr. Bequelin and other analysts say they suspect the space for dissent will only narrow this year. There is the coming change in leadership, a transition that takes place once every 12 years, as well as the specter of an economic slowdown that party leaders worry could exacerbate social tensions. Prognosticating in China is always a risky endeavor, but there are signs that the Communist Party is girding itself for battle.

 In the most recent edition of the party publication Seeking Truth, President Hu Jintao warned the nation about those seeking to bring China down, especially ‘‘hostile international powers,’’ a term often used to describe human rights advocates. ‘‘We must be aware of the seriousness and complexity of the struggles and take powerful measures to prevent and deal with them.’’ Officials have already devised a new legal bludgeon against their enemies: a revision of the criminal code, pending before China’s legislature, that would allow the police to secretly detain for six months those accused of ‘‘endangering national security,’’ a catchall designation often wielded against political offenders. The case of Ni Yulan and Dong Jiqin exemplifies the way officials use the legal system to silence those they deem to be nuisances. 

Ms. Ni, 51, who received a law degree from China University of Political Science and Law, drew the attention of the authorities in 2002, when she used her expertise to help neighbors in Xicheng fighting eviction, part of the government’s sweeping effort to remake the capital ahead of the Olympics. Detained after she tried to photograph demolition crews, she said she was kicked and pummeled over the course of 15 hours, leaving her unable to walk. She was released after 75 days but continued her legal work while also seeking redress for the beating. Over the next few years, she was arrested twice more on charges of ‘‘obstructing public business.’’ During her three years in prison, she said she endured frequent indignities: An officer once urinated on her face, she said, and prison officials often took away her crutches, forcing her to crawl from her cell to the prison workshop. One of her tasks included cleaning toilets. While in prison, she lost her license to practice law, and demolition workers tore down her home. Her daughter, too, was made to feel the wrath of the government. ‘‘The police followed me to school and watched me all day so I would experience the fear,’’ said the younger woman, Dong Xuan, now 27. 

Ms. Ni gained her freedom in April 2010 but found herself homeless after the police made it impossible for her to rent an apartment or a hotel room. Supporters donated a tent, which she and her husband pitched in a park in central Beijing. But when petitioners and reporters began showing up in large numbers, the authorities moved the couple into a dingy hotel room. Their latest arrest last April appears to have been prompted by Ms. Ni’s continued work dispensing legal help to the petitioners who flocked to the couple’s tiny room at the Xin Royal Palace Hotel. Indeed, one of the charges she faces is fraud — prosecutors say her disbarment meant she was not allowed to engage in legal work. The couple are also accused of failing to pay their hotel bill. The police tried to dislodge them last winter by cutting off water and electricity to the room. Their plight caught the attention of the Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador, who visited them in February. After photographs of Ms. Ni working by candlelight began to spread on the Internet, the authorities took the couple into custody. During their trial last week, Ms. Ni was confined to a makeshift bed, an oxygen mask tethered to her face. Outside, a heavy police presence prevented family members, supporters and foreign diplomats from entering the courtroom. Their lawyer, Mr. Cheng, claims the proceedings were illegal because nine of his 10 witnesses were barred from testifying. The only witness was Ms. Ni’s daughter, who spoke briefly about her mother’s health problems. ‘‘I don’t expect her to get a fair trial,’’ Ms. Dong said afterward. ‘‘My mother can’t walk, and she can barely breathe. I can’t understand why they just won’t let her be.’’ 
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