Security dragnet in China tightens ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

CHINA - CHINA'S security apparatus has gone into overdrive ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown next month and in the wake of a string of knife attacks on civilians across the country.

Tough security measures such as requiring customers to produce identity cards when buying petrol have been implemented in Beijing, while over the past two weeks, the authorities have begun rounding up and prosecuting high-profile democracy activists and dissidents.

Security is usually stepped up ahead of June 4, the day in 1989 when troops cracked down on pro-democracy university students and unionists who were occupying Tiananmen Square, and is aimed at keeping activists from commemorating the politically sensitive event every year.

But this year's dragnet has started earlier, spread wider and looks harsher than ever before, said observers.

"The tactics are more heavy-handed and the range of people who have been taken into custody is wider," said Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam, comparing this year's crackdown to that of the 20th anniversary in 2009.

"Compared with (predecessors) Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, (Chinese President) Xi Jinping seems more nervous about these destabilising forces of pro-democracy activism," he added.

The crackdown kicked off in earnest more than two weeks ago when famous journalist Gao Yu, 70, previously jailed for supporting the 1989 protests, was taken from her home by security officers.

Last Thursday, state news agency Xinhua reported that she was being investigated for leaking state secrets, and state broadcaster CCTV showed a blurred image of a woman, identified as Ms Gao, confessing to the crime and expressing remorse.

On May 6, prominent human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, 49, was taken away, along with other activists, after they attended a private gathering to mark the move 25 years ago by China's top leadership to pen an editorial that called the Tiananmen protests "counter-party and counter-revolutionary". The editorial was published in the People's Daily on April 26.

The editorial is seen as the turning point that irreversibly escalated tensions between the government and protesters. Some, like Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping, were released after questioning, but Mr Pu and a few others like activist Hu Shigen remain missing, said their families.

Mr Pu and his defence of dissident bloggers and writers are well-known in the mainland, and news of his arrest last week was even obliquely referenced to by movie star Zhang Ziyi, who told her 20 million microblog followers to watch a South Korean film, The Attorney, which is about "a lawyer who pursues democracy, rule of law and justice".

References to the film, which is based on the life of former South Korean president Roh Moo Hyun, have percolated all over Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging site, as a veiled way of expressing support for Mr Pu, whose name is blocked on social media.

A number of "post-1990" young Chinese have also been getting around the firewall by posting pictures of themselves holding up a stylised sketch of Mr Pu with words of support. But the posts are deleted within minutes by China's army of online censors.

Over the weekend, close to 10 gay rights activists who had gathered for a seminar were also rounded up and questioned, reported the Global Times. While all have been released, observers said this unusual move reveals escalating paranoia on the part of the authorities, which had not previously targeted activism unrelated to liusi (or June 4), as the crackdown is known here, in its run-up.

"The Chinese Communist Party is more nervous now," said Renmin University political analyst Zhang Ming. "The 25th anniversary is part of the reason, but the bigger problem is political tussles and political challenges from different groups in society."

The pre-June 4 chill has been heightened by new anti-terrorist measures in the capital, rolled out after brutal attacks on civilians across the country were carried out by separatist forces from the restive Xinjiang region.

Around 150 armed patrol vehicles fanned out across Beijing yesterday, while police enforcement teams ran late-night drills last week. State media also reported yesterday that those who buy petrol from petrol stations will now have to produce their identity cards and proof of reasons for purchase.

The move, said Renmin University security expert Guo Taisheng, is a response to a new type of terrorism in China that makes use of kitchen knives and home-made explosive devices to wreak havoc.

"The security measures have to follow the evolution of terrorist tactics," he said.

Last October, a suicide attack near Beijing's Tiananmen Square killed five, including three suspected terrorists from Xinjiang.

On March 1, knife-wielding assailants, also said to be from Xinjiang, killed 29 people at Kunming city's train station, while an attack involving knives and explosives occurred late last month in Xinjiang's Urumqi capital, killing at least three.

Yesterday afternoon, an explosion went off on a public bus in Yibin city in Sichuan province, killing one person and injuring at least 24, but it was unclear by press time if this was a result of foul play.

This article was published on May 13 in The Straits Times.

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