China cracks down on freedoms as world heats up

The mysterious reappearance of foreign booksellers raises questions surrounding China’s attitudes to freedom of expression, at a time when international relations are under increasing strain

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Shady business: China’s mass-scale state media portrays an effective conversion of its critics. Image: Hans Johnson

Recent events have highlighted the increased assertiveness of China in maintaining control of its population. Four of five booksellers have resurfaced after five months – having disappeared between October and December – including a British and a Swedish national, after being arrested for selling “illegal books” critical of the Communist Party.

As of 1 March, the British passport holder has reappeared, denying that he’d been kidnapped by the Chinese authorities. In a statement released late on 29 February, Lee Bo detailed an account of his disappearance claiming that he’d returned to China voluntarily. Although dubious, his story is being used by China to challenge claims made by the British government that China was attempting to undermine the “One Country, Two Systems” agreements made in 1997 after the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong to China.

In an interview, Lee Bo has announced that he is renouncing his British citizenship. State television interviews with the other four booksellers detailed their alleged crimes, and showed them expressing regret about having broken the law and having “generated lots of rumours in society and bringing bad influence”. A number of countries have expressed concern over the disappearances arguing that they constitute kidnapping. China has responded saying that police would never do anything illegal, and that other nations respect Chinese sovereignty.

What remains absent …  is a clear definition of what constitutes terrorism

To add to this, China has recently announced three new laws – a counter-terrorism law, a draft cyber security law to further increase draft law on management of foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to more closely monitor their activities.

What remains absent, not for the first time, is a clear definition of what constitutes terrorism, raising fears that China will crack down on freedom of expression further.

These events come at a challenging time. As well as changes in Chinese economic fortunes, China has been flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, laying claim to a number of islands and building a number of artificial ones.

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The South China Sea proves to be a hotly contested area, with the potential to damage foreign relations. Image: US Navy

Unsettled neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have accused China of breaching their sovereignty and not respecting the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that details the limits of territorial claims nations can make to the ocean. The Philippines has accused China of deliberately blocking access to the Jackson Atoll in the contested Spratly Islands.

The US has regularly sailed warships around the area in an effort to assert their right to navigate on international waters to which China has responded with veiled threats. The South China Sea is thought to be extremely resource rich, incentivising claims to the landmasses in it in an effort to gain control over valuable assets.

The Communist Party has historically shown a reflexive need for control over most aspects of Chinese life. Economically, China faces a slowing rate of growth, fuelled by a lack of investment. Its actions cracking down on freedom of expression reflect this reflexive need.

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