IT IS NOT unknown for Chinese intellectuals to be seen on state television confessing to their alleged crimes. It is not unknown for hyphenated Chinese, Chinese-Americans in particular, to be seen doing the same.
It is exceedingly rare for a non-ethnically Chinese foreigner to be seen doing so. That makes the case of Peter Dahlin so exceptional.
The Swede had been detained since early January amid a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, before being expelled from the country today.
Dahlin founded Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, commonly known as China Action, a non-governmental organization that provides legal aid to people alleging human rights violations and assistance to uncertified lawyers in rural areas.
Authorities accuse China Action of receiving foreign funding to ‘instigate confrontations’ and to have ‘trained others to gather, fabricate and distort information about China’. They say they have ‘smashed an illegal organization that sponsored activities jeopardizing China’s national security’.
Well, they would, wouldn’t they, this Bystander is tempted to say.
However, beyond the particulars of this case, what are the general implications? Is this the sending of a chilling message — as seems to have been the case of the disappearing Hong Kong booksellers including Gui Minhai, who holds a Swedish passport and who was apparently detained in Thailand in what is seemingly an early example of the exercise of the new national security law that gives security forces international reach.
Or does it fit into a broader pattern of deterrence, and, if so, a pattern of what?
Certainly, there has been a crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists since last summer. Scores of Chinese lawyers and their staff have been detained for interrogation, leaving many facing political subversion charges that carry potential sentences of life imprisonment.
Giving this operation the veneer of rooting out a Western conspiracy against China provides popularly acceptable patriotic cover. And if it is on television, it must be true.
However, the crackdown goes wider than civil rights lawyers. Last year, more than 30 university officials were accused of taking bribes or other corruption. Their number included Zhou Wenbin, the high-profile head of Nanchang University who was sentenced last month to life imprisonment for taking bribes and embezzlement. At least seven other university presidents, including that of the Communication University of China in Beijing, have been removed from their posts in the sweep.
Visiting and Chinese scholars talk of an academic chill having descended. Indeed, it may be the worst time to be an open-minded academic since the anti-bourgeois liberalisation campaigns of the 1980s following strict new guidelines on criticism of Party and government.
The leadership’s centralization of power to protect the Party’s political monopoly has imposed, inevitably, severe constraints on civil society as it represents a possible alternative centre of political activity that could challenge the Party. Notions of human rights, judicial independence and multi-party democracy are seen as particular threats to the Party’s supremacy that need to be countered.
The effect is self-censorship within academia and the avoidance of controversial issues.
Top leadership believes the Party faces an existential struggle. The example of post-Communist eastern Europe has been noted. There, professors, writers, lawyers and journalists became politicians and the intellectual leadership of new political groupings.
This distrust of potential rival sources of power coincides with the emergence of the notion among the leadership that it no longer needs intellectuals to inform it and shape policy, a traditional role that political scientists within universities have played.
The increasing prominence of ministry-sponsored think thanks taking on that role is no coincidence. At the same time, the capability of the security apparatus to gather mass information — and of ‘big data’ to analyse it — provides a new potential alternative to critical independent scholars.