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Leading Chinese dissident claims freedom of speech worse than before Olympics

April 30, 2009

The Chinese government is allowing its people
less freedom of speech than two years ago,
dashing hopes that last year's Olympic Games
would lead to greater liberalisation, a leading Chinese dissident has claimed.
By Peter Foster in Shihezi
The Telegraph (UK)
April 29, 2009

He Weifang, a celebrated law professor and lead
signatory to last year's Charter 08 petition
calling for democratic reforms in China, said the
ruling Communist Party was currently engaged in a
fresh wave of repressive internet and media censorship.

Even allowing for the Communist party's highly
conservative approach to any kind of reform -
embodied in Deng Xiaoping's famous phrase
"Crossing the river by feeling for stones" – he
said China was moving backwards on basic freedoms.

"The situation at the moment is that the river
has deepened and the Party has got scared, so it
has pulled back, fearing that the waters will
rise up and drown them. In the last two years
this pulling back from the water has got worse,"
he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

Professor He, once a leading light at the Beijing
University Law School, was speaking from the
one-bedroom flat in the tiny provincial city of
Shihezi in China's arid northwest where he was
'exiled' last month in punishment, he believes, for signing Charter 08.

He cited last year's anti-government riots in
Tibet, protests over the Olympic torch relay,
fears of a rising tide of nationalism and the
forthcoming 20th anniversary of the 1989
Tiananmen Square killings on June 4 as the main reasons behind the crackdown.

"The signs of repression are very clear. Liu
Xiaobo [the lead architect of Charter 08] is
still under house arrest and my own internet
discussion forum has also been shut down," he added.

As a well-known proponent of legal reform, Prof
He has published articles for almost 20 years
calling for an independent judiciary in China,
but his writings, tolerated until recently, are now seen as "problematic".

"I think I was tolerated as an individual, but
Charter 08 was a co-ordinated, collective action
and it was that element of organisation that
provoked such a hostile reaction from the Party.
Newspapers that used to publish strong articles
arguing for reform no longer dare," he said.

Prof He, 49, is among a group of 303 Chinese
academics and influential commentators who signed
Charter 08 in a self-conscious effort to revive
the democratic, reformist ideals espoused by
students in demonstrations across China 20 years ago.

The Charter, which contains a blistering
indictment of the failings of Communist rule in
China, has left intellectuals divided, with many
arguing that its criticisms were too direct and ultimately counter-productive.

However Prof He disagrees. "I favour direct
criticism. Charter 08 is a list of the mistakes
the Party has made and the crimes it has
committed. It is important for people to learn
about the truth, because the truth is the only basis for creating change."

Prof He paid a personal price for refusing to
withdraw his signature from the petition when his
appointment to a post in Zhejiang University in
southern China was blocked last year by what he
describes as "an invisible hand".

Instead he was "offered" a position at the
little-known Shihezi University in Xinjiang where
he teaches just six hours a week, living far away
from his wife in Beijing and passing long hours
listening to Strauss waltzes and reading books on Silk Road archaeology.

He is sanguine about his two years in exile in
Xinjiang which he treats with grim humour,
knowing that he follows in the footsteps of
several renowned Chinese intellectuals such as
the writer Wang Meng and poet Ai Qing, who were
exiled to Xinjiang during the Mao era.

"When the head of Beijing University suggested
Xinjiang, I said 'ah yes, what a good idea. I
don't suppose I shall miss any dramatic legal or
political reforms in the next two years," he recalls with a roar of laughter.

The modern breed of Chinese students Prof He now
teaches have a far more conservative outlook than
in the days when he was a young faculty member
out demonstrating on the streets of Beijing in 1989.

"We students of 20 years ago were more
idealistic, we talked about politics and we
worried about the future of the country. That's
how '6/4' [the Tiananmen Square protests] could
happen," he said. "Students these days are under
all kinds of different pressures. They worry
about finding a job and purchasing an apartment.
They do not like to speak out about politics now."

However despite their far-from-revolutionary
attitude to life, Prof He sees little sign that
China's rulers are prepared to trust ordinary
people with a real say into how their country is run.

There has been progress in some areas, he admits,
citing a growing responsiveness from the
government to individual concerns -- such as last
year's contaminated milk scandal and a recent
scandal over prison brutality -- but believes it is skin-deep.

"There has been change to some extent, but the
response to last year's Tibetan protests shows
that the changes are cosmetic, not fundamental.
The Party moves only when it is pushed," he said.

"What happened 20 years ago [in Tiananmen Square]
caused unimaginable trauma in the Communist
Party. It is a moment from which they have never recovered."

Prof He believes that that "trauma" and the fact
that the bloody repression of the demonstrators
was endorsed by Deng Xiaoping, the hugely popular
father-figure of China's "opening up", has made
it impossible for the Party to embrace meaningful reform.

"The Party needs to admit its crimes, but it
cannot. It fears that to admit it was wrong would
undermine its entire claim to legitimacy. But if
they do not adapt, then that process of
transformation will not occur peacefully, and if
the extreme violence comes, then there will be no
Communist Party. It is a case of adapt or die."
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