Monday, February 28, 2011

China: Fear of freedom prompts brutal response

A paranoid state can often be seen to overreact and even the slightest challenge will be crushed with a heavy blow. The growing calls for democracy that are sweeping around the globe, and the way in which brutal regimes are defending their positions of power is testament to this.

From Easy Rider to 1984

It is a subject discussed both in popular music, film and literature. In the 1969 film Easy Rider, the two bikers, Wyatt [Peter Fonda] and Billy [Dennis Hopper] discuss with their new found friend George Hanson [Jack Nicholson] how the concept of freedom can scare not only people, but society as a whole, and of course government.

Sitting around a fire in the dead of night George opens the debate. "You know this used to be a hell of a good country, can't understand what's gone wrong with it?"

Wyatt just looks on interested, but Billy responds, "Man, everyone's got chicken that's what happened, man. Hey, we can't even get into a, like, second-rate hotel, a second rate motel, you dig. They think we're going to cut their throats or something, man. Like, they're scared, man."

George continues, "They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent." Billy does not quite understand what George is saying and just quips, "All we represent to them, man, is someone who needs a haircut."

"No. What you represent to them is freedom." George continues. Defensively Billy raises his voice, "What the hell's wrong with freedom! That's what it's all about." George then explains, calmly and quietly. "Yeah, that's right. That's what it's all about. But talking it and being it, that's two different things. I mean it's really hard to be free when you're bought and sold in the market place. Don't ever tell anyone that they're not free because they'll get real busy killing and maiming to prove that they are. Oh yeah, they'll talk to you and talk to you and talk to you about individual freedom but they see a free individual it's going to scare them."

Billy is dismissive of Georges philosophical view. "Man, it don't make them running scared," he retorts. But George continues. "No, it makes them dangerous," he warns.

The George Orwell novel 1984 warns of the dangers of totalitarian rule where every citizen's movements are monitored. And musicians have repeatedly referred to the power of the state. The messages have also become more overt and pointed. In the 1960s there was a revolutionary fervour with the likes of Bob Dylan delivering vocal rants and social commentary. Even the more commercial Beatles spoke of Revolution and made tongue in cheek criticisms of the class and corporate greed in ditties like Piggies.

By the 1980s and with the advent of punk, groups were less subtle. The anarcho-punk band Crass was the harshest in its critique of authoritarian power. In the polemic album Yes Sir, I Will the band discusses many factors which affect the way in which the state controls people's lives. "The boundaries are becoming narrower as the State becomes more paranoid," they assert, adding that "Under authoritarian rule, conformity becomes the only security." In such a situation the prospect of change is difficult. "Fear is a powerful weapon against human development," the group insists.

Fear of the State

It is the fear of the state that stops any form of dissent in a country like China. Despite calls for a so-called 'Jasmine Revolution', inspired by the unrest seen across the Middle East, few in China are willing to raise their voice and complain.

On the face of it China is developing fast. Millions of people have been pulled out of poverty, and the country's growing infrastructure is a marvel. But beneath the veneer, there are undercurrents of discontent. The rich, poor divide is increasing, human rights abuses occur all too frequently, there is no freedom of the press, censorship enters into many aspects of life and corruption is rife. But there are no vocal signs of protest as any attempt to complain is quickly crushed.

The way China crushes any signs of criticism was clearly seen last Sunday following calls for a second wave of protests. The previous week's event in Beijing had been little more than a gathering of curious onlookers, undeclared protesters, a large media presence and a huge number of police who moved in to disperse the crowd. But with the prospect of another gathering, the state were far more prepared. Throughout the week the searching of keywords such as Wangfujing, protest, revolution and Jasmine have been been blocked on Chinese microblogging platforms in order to prevent any message of dissent spreading. But there was a physical show of force too to prevent the virtual world spilling into the streets of the real world. Dissidents and activists have been rounded up or put under house arrest and security in many cities across China has increased.

Crushing dissent & reporting

Walking along Wangfujing from the southern entrance there were lines of police, SWAT teams, armed police, dog patrols, special CCTV units, and dozens of plain clothed police with earpieces. Anyone appearing to be a western journalist was quickly pounced upon and asked for their credentials, and many other foreigners were also singled out, their details taken while state security filmed continuously. Inside the KFC and McDonalds, where the protests were supposed to begin, plain clothed security were spotted looking from the windows, scanning the streets while others filmed the customers eating their lunch. Many also reported the GPRS/3G signals shut-down around the area, though voice calls and SMS appeared uninterrupted [Atlantic]. 

But the real power of the state came at 14:00, when the supposed 'strolling' protest was to begin. Street cleaning vans started to drive up and down the centre of the shopping precinct, forcing people to a narrow strip of pavement on either side.

Without warning police moved in against foreign media. One group of plain clothes officers shoved and pushed a BBC cameraman. They grabbed at his camera and tried to rip it from his hands before bundling him a full 50 metres into a police van. The men, all wearing earpieces, then turned on BBC correspondent Damian Grammaticas, grabbing him by the hair and physically picking him up before throwing him into the waiting van.  They then repeatedly slammed the door on his leg, still partly hanging from the truck while a few shoppers looked on in confusion [BBC].

The BBC were not the only targets. Steve Engle of Bloomberg TV attempted to film the detention of photographer Adam J Dean [Twitter / Photoshelter] but he was himself accosted by plain clothed police. At least five men in plain clothes, who appeared to be security personnel, punched and kicked Engle in the head at around 14:45 before dragging him into a nearby store. They also took the video camera he was carrying. Engle was then taken to the police station where he made a complaint. His camera was returned with an explanation that it had been found by a passer-by [Bloomberg].

Camera teams of Germany's two public broadcasting networks also found themselves arrested. Christine Adelhardt, correspondent for ARD was amongst the group which was eventually released some 4 hours later. "We were told that there are new regulations that you can't film at certain areas without permission," Adelhardt told the German Press Agency dpa. She was made to present a written apology that she did not know about the new rules before she was released.

Meanwhile Johannes Hano, correspondent for the second German public channel ZDF, and his crew were also detained and remained in police custody. A reporter from dpa was also detained for a time [Saudi News Today / Monsters & Critics].

Other western correspondents on the receiving end of China's brutal crackdown on media reporting included a New York Times photographer and French journalist for La Vie, Jordan Pouille. Those who did not find themselves arrested were instead manhandled, questioned and escorted away from the site [CNN / Guardian / Telegraph].

Many of the journalists, photographers and cameramen who found themselves arrested were told they could not do interviews in the area because of "special circumstances". Questions about the special circumstances were ignored. All the foreign media were reportedly released, though Bloomberg cameraman Engle later sought hospital treatment for his injuries.

Some journalists and reporters decided that discretion was the better part valour. Photographer Tom Spender wrote on his blog that he "thought it too risky" to take out his camera. Not wanting to to be continually filmed by plain clothed security he and a friend sought safety in a nearby coffee shop.

In a statement, the Foreign Correspondent's Club of China said it was "appalled by the attack on one of our members [Engle] by men who appeared to be plain clothes security officers in Beijing. This video journalist was trying to do his job when he was set upon and repeatedly punched and kicked in the face by officers as part of a general crackdown in Wangfujing following calls on the Internet for a protest in this area."

Spooked, brutal & dangerous

BBC correspondent meanwhile described the operation as "brutal and totally out of proportion to the situation" and said that was evident "that China's Communist Party chiefs have been spooked by the popular protests sweeping the Middle East."

In those democratic revolutions ranks of ordinary people from developing countries have been rising against the autocracies that have monopolised power. China has many similar problems to those in the Middle East. And there are growing calls for greater freedom.

The revolts in the Middle East seem to have tapped into fears felt in China's leaders and its security apparatus. And that fear of freedom has indeed made them more dangerous. Fortunately it has yet to manifest itself in the brutality seen in 1989 during a pro-democracy movement which left hundreds dead.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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