The thuggery behind the harmonious facade

By Howard W. French
November 30, 2007
Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SHANGHAI: Last October, as Ma Shaofang prepared to travel from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to Beijing to attend a writers’ conference, he received a menacing call from the police.
Why trouble a businessman who wants to attend a conference? The problem was that as a student hunger strike organizer during the Tiananmen protests in 1989, Ma had a “dossier” that still trails behind him wherever he goes in China.
The Chinese calendar is filled with special dates, “sensitive moments” whose association with events either historical or current put the authorities on alert and the people on guard.
October 2007 happened to be the month of the Communist Party’s 17th Congress, a once-in-five years affair whose political significance is such that the capital is locked down, potential “troublemakers” rounded up and even the airwaves scrubbed with extra vigor by censors whose job it is to see that nothing can sully the image of a serene and clear-sighted leadership.
So with that backdrop in mind, the police “invited” Ma for tea. Ma’s account of the meeting, which he recently published, and which was subsequently translated by the University of California at Berkeley’s China Digital Times, offers a chilling glimpse of a Chinese reality that few foreigners ever see.
It is a side of China that not only persists, but also thrives. Of a state whose leaders are fond of proclaiming their attachment to advancing the rule of law but who cling to thuggery to intimidate the populace, silence critics and generally to enforce their will.
The police: You must be busy lately. Is business going well?
Ma: Enough of this. I’ve heard from the “relevant departments” that people like us are not allowed to make big bucks. We’re just doing enough to make a living.
The police: We haven’t bothered your business, have we?
Ma: Really? Unless I remember it wrong, you guys once talked to my partner and said, “if we see him dealing with your company, your business will end.”
The police: That’s because you did something we didn’t want you to do. Over the last few years you haven’t made any trouble for us, so we haven’t made any trouble for you.
Ma: Is that so? You asked me to come here today. Isn’t this trouble?
The police: How can you say this is trouble? We’re friends. Isn’t it O.K. to have a cup of tea together?
Ma: It’s a pity we’re not sitting here as friends. Enough beating around the bush, let’s talk about why I am wanted here today.
The police: O.K., are you or are you not planning to go to Beijing soon?
Ma: I am. I’m flying there tomorrow. Any problem?
The police: You have to go?
Ma then insists that he is only going for business, and the police reply that if that’s the case, they won’t try to stop him. But they warn him, for good measure.
The police: We’re just kindly reminding you. If you break the law, of course there are corresponding punishments, and it will surely not be like this, sitting here drinking tea.
Ma: You mean interrogation? I’ve already been through that. But what is this reminder, really, a warning or a threat?
The police: We’re friends, and we don’t want our friends to run into trouble.
Ma: But as I’ve said, we’re not sitting here as friends. We are the ruler and the ruled.
It would be bad enough if such harassment were limited to former Tiananmen protesters, but goon tactics like these are widespread in China, and the thuggery doesn’t stop there.
Chinese assistants for foreign news publications, for one, are regularly called in for debriefings over tea by state security agents who treat foreign journalists as intelligence targets and darkly wield an implicit threat about the consequences of noncooperation to squeeze information from local researchers.
This sort of thing pales, of course, in comparison to areas in which the authorities believe they enjoy more thorough impunity, where the use of fear and control over the media mean that their actions will remain cloaked in darkness.
In cities where huge urban redevelopment projects are underway, places like Shanghai, for example, residents who resist forced relocation without anything resembling due process are known to have been summoned to the police headquarters and retained there just long enough for the wrecking crews to knock down their homes in their absence.
Those who protest too much are often simply carted off to teach them a lesson.
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