Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why China Sentences 70-Year-Olds

Washington Post - Posted by John Pomfret

If anyone needs an example of how brittle China's Communist Party leaders think their country is, look no further than the case of Wang Xiuying and Wu Dianyuan. The elderly women, who both walk with canes and have failing eyesight, were sentenced to serve one-year terms in a labor camp after they applied to hold a legal protest in Beijing. And if you think there was no method to this madness, that it's somehow the fault of some random thug in the Ministry of Public Security, I'd caution you to think again.

Wang and Wu wanted to protest because they believe they did not receive sufficient compensation when their homes were flattened to make way for redevelopment in Beijing. Their complaint is probably the most common type of problem faced by average Chinese who happen to live in the way of their country's economic juggernaut. Over the last several decades, Chinese researchers estimate that more than 100 million Chinese have lost their homes to redevelopment plans and many of them were tossed out with scant recompense.

So when Wang and Wu heard that, with the Olympics, authorities in Beijing had set aside special protest zones in three parks, they applied. Not once but four times. On the fourth time, they were detained and then sentenced -- by the cops, not a judge -- to a labor camp. (They haven't been incarcerated yet but will if they violate various provisions or regulations.)

To me, the granny case sums up the conundrum that is China, today. Here you have this amazing country that has lifted millions out of poverty, that has sported a world-beating growth rate over the last 15 years, that is exploring space, dominating the art world and now the Olympics. And how do they treat grandmas who want a little extra cash for their homes? They toss 'em in jail. Chairman Mao said "in order to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs." But, man, two ladies in their 70s?

So on one hand we have confident China. On the other a party-state that views even geriatrics as "disturbers of the public order."

Now, China enthusiasts will argue that, there must be a mistake, or this was obviously the action of a thuggish cop who must have gone too far, or perhaps it's the fault of a dreaded "conservative faction" of the party in the parlance of Chinese political tea-leaf readers. I'd say, however, the grandma case is completely consistent with CCP standard operating procedure; it's not an anomaly. Here's why.

By setting up the protests zones, the party has done something it's never really done before. It's told its people that protesting is legal and here are the places you can do it. Yes, 47 applications were received, 44 from Chinese, and, according to the official New China News Agency, 44 people withdrew their applications after their problems were miraculously solved! (Several others were banned from applying; I guess Wang and Wu fell into that category.)

But as the Olympics wind down, the party is looking to the future, completely aware of how, for example, the Seoul Olympics in 1988 spurred change in that Asian Tiger. It has to send a signal to people that it won't tolerate threats to "stability" and that if they think the Olympics are heralding a new era of freedom, they'd better think again. The party also has to inform its people that the protest application process cuts both ways; it might open the way to air long-repressed grievances, but it also can be used by the security services to ferret out dissidents and toss them in the hoosegow -- a Communist tactic since the Hundred Flowers movement and before. What better way to accomplish these two goals than by sentencing two old ladies to jail? In one fell swoop you show others with grievances just how low you will go. It's the madman theory of Chinese domestic politics. And Wang and Wu are the victims.

Finally, however, in sentencing the pair, the cops gave themselves an out. The two aren't in a labor camp now and could stay out of jail if they "behave," which probably means stop talking to Western journalist and confine themselves to their new homes. But the party has put Chinese malcontents on notice. We should take notice as well.

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