In the 33 years since Tiananmen, China has learned to stifle activism

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Once a week, Chinese activists Sophia Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing gathered friends and acquaintances, mostly just to chat.

In Wang’s one-bedroom apartment in downtown Guangzhou, attendees shared their experiences of working in China’s struggling nonprofit sector, being LGBTQ, or preserving the mental health when marginalized by the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of society.

Sometimes the group would just watch a movie, go hiking, or play mah-jongg or a board game. It was meant to be a safe and inclusive space to support each other or speak openly about ideas banned from public discourse by state censors.

Today, in part because of those rallies, Huang and Wang are charged with “inciting the subversion of state power.”

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Nearly nine months after their disappearance, the affair of the “xuebing” – an amalgamation of their names that their supporters use – has become an example of how far the Communist Party will go to stifle ideas diverging from its own. Now, 33 years after the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protest, authorities are ensuring that such movements never even begin.

Beyond a high-profile campaign to crush public advocacy by pro-democracy activists and human rights lawyers, China’s security state is increasingly devoting vast resources to privacy surveillance. socially active people with views he finds problematic.

Human rights activists have criticized UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s visit to China last week, where she offered only cautious criticism of a campaign of mass internment in Xinjiang. Supporters of Huang and Wang expressed frustration that Bachelet spoke at Guangzhou University, just minutes from where Wang lived, and hailed “youth movements and actions that challenge discrimination, injustice and inequality,” but no did not raise the matter publicly.

Since the couple were arrested in September 2021 a day before Huang flew to Britain to study, Chinese police have questioned dozens of people who attend the weekly rallies, sometimes traveling across the country for the find or pick up people on the street. , close friends of the couple told The Washington Post in interviews. The interrogation usually lasted 24 hours.

The individuals, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, say there is no reason to consider these meetings subversive. During the interrogation process, however, it became clear that this was the conclusion the police had reached. A friend said interrogators used photos from events in early 2021, suggesting they had been monitoring the group for more than six months before arresting Huang and Wang.

Police calling the meetings an attempt to subvert the state is “a complete fabrication”, said a close friend of Huang’s who attended the rallies. “They’re complete bulls—, coming from their own paranoia.”

“We were just making friends and talking about things ranging from how hard it is to be gay to the number of sleepless nights we’ve had this week and how hard it is to find a job,” she said.

Neither the national branch nor the Guangzhou branch of China’s Ministry of Public Security responded to faxed requests for comment.

The opacity of China’s judicial system, particularly for cases affecting national security, means the exact nature of the prosecutors’ case against Huang and Wang remains unclear, even to their lawyers. Wang’s lawyer was able to meet him for half an hour in April for the first time. A request by Huang’s lawyer to meet with her client or see the prosecutor’s case against her was denied, with authorities citing coronavirus prevention measures.

Both had previously worked on subjects deemed sensitive by the Chinese state. A leading feminist, Huang transitioned from journalism to activism during the #MeToo movement as she helped women tell stories of sexual harassment and assault. Wang worked in non-governmental labor rights organizations that supported workers with work-related illnesses.

It is unclear to what extent their activism is also considered a reason for the charge of subversion. In 2019, Huang was detained for three months after writing about protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s imposition of a stifling national security law. But friends say the police seemed mainly interested in the nature of the weekly meetings as well as any international events they attended or any foreign funding they might have received.

Under President Xi Jinping, China’s security state has stepped up its efforts to prevent dissent before it can take hold. The surveillance loopholes that allowed previous generations of activists to gain traction are increasingly being filled by new campaigns calling on police to be vigilant against any signs of an emerging threat to national security and social stability.

In past administrations, movements were often able to gain some degree of public traction prior to arrests. When the Chinese military put a bloody end to the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square 33 years ago on Saturday, its legacy lived on in figures like Liu Xiaobo, who helped draft and promote a manifesto known as Charter 08 which in 2008 called for an end to one-party rule.

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After the document garnered thousands of signatures, Liu was jailed for “inciting subversion” – the same crime Huang and Wang are charged with – shortly before winning the Nobel Peace Prize. His death from liver cancer in 2017, while under the watchful eye of Chinese security officers, sparked an outpouring of grief among liberal Chinese.

A later “advocacy” movement largely abandoned calls for democratization in favor of demanding basic civil liberties for the oppressed. Lawyers and activists have defended victims of forced evictions, HIV transmitted through impure needles or practitioners of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong.

Again, these efforts were crushed by multiple crackdowns that culminated in a massive campaign launched on July 9, 2015, when dozens of people were arrested overnight.

Since then, the government has sought to guard against both the re-emergence of older movements and the arrival of a younger generation like Huang and Wang who focus more on preserving personal dignity and well-being. be individual.

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Human rights lawyers now find it difficult to take on sensitive cases due to an increasingly delicate vetting system that has been put in place in recent years, according to Mina Huang, a Chinese lawyer from the human rights. She also fears that the normalization of big data surveillance during the pandemic will make the situation worse.

“The work done by Huang Xueqin and Wang Jianbing was very significant. It gave young people a space to become aware of this time and our situation,” she said. “The charges against them are typical of the repression of young activists. The authorities are afraid that the younger generation will become active.

According to friends of the couple, the idea of ​​starting a new movement was far from their minds when they attended rallies at Wang’s apartment. Many, including Wang, suffered from depression and anxiety at a time when civil society was under attack.

Over tea, wine, and fruit provided by Wang, they discussed their personal struggles alongside the issues of the day. “It wasn’t about how to react. It was about how to understand what’s going on. Because we thought we didn’t have space to do any type of activism,” said a friend.

Another friend lamented the authorities’ instinctive intolerance of communities beyond their control. “But not all meetings are about the CCP. It’s not all about you guys.

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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