China Cracks Down On Dissidents

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Melissa Block talks with NPR's Rob Gifford about China's crackdown on dissidents since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo a week ago. Gifford says nearly all dissidents in China, and in particular those who signed onto the Charter 08 document drafted by Liu, have been watched or harassed by authorities.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

It has been one week since imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese government called that award an obscenity and has responded with a sharp crackdown on dissidents and advocates of democratic reform. Some have disappeared. Others are under house arrest or have been roughed up.

NPR's Rob Gifford is tracking this story. He joins us from Shanghai. And, Rob, among those under house arrest is Liu's wife. Who else? How widespread a crackdown is this?

ROB GIFFORD: Well, it is fairly widespread, Melissa. As you know, the dissident community here has shrunk in recent years. There are not too many of them. But several dozen signed this document that Liu Xiaobo wrote in 2008 called Charter '08. It was shaped on the famous Charter '77 that was written in Czechoslovakia that led to the Velvet Revolution there.

Pretty much all the people who signed that document are being watched by the police, many of them kept in their apartments. So anyone who has ever crossed the Communist Party's radar screen as being a dissident pretty much is being closely watched.

And one very important person, a woman called Ding Zilin, she is the mother of a young man who was killed in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. And, in fact, she no one seems to be able to get hold of her. She is the woman who Liu Xiaobo, the winner last week, actually said should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

BLOCK: It's interesting, Rob, that in the face of this crackdown, there are still some activists who have been emboldened. They released an open letter yesterday calling for Liu's release from prison.

GIFFORD: Absolutely. And that is the reason for an even sharper crackdown, literally in the last 24 hours. So much has changed in the world over the last decade, not least because of 9/11. The focus, America's focus, the Western world's focus, has very much moved to the Muslim world. And I think pressure on the Chinese government for improvements in the human rights situation has been loosened.

There has not been as much pressure on Beijing, and I think a lot of these people feel now is the time to really try to press home their point when everybody is watching China.

BLOCK: And that pressure, Rob, is coming from a very different direction, too. There's another letter circulating online calling for political reform and an end to censorship. But this one is coming not from dissidents, it's coming from retired Communist Party stalwarts. Help us understand that.

GIFFORD: Yes, it's fascinating. I mean, I think this one was actually circulating before Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is senior officials. Mao Zedong, Chairman Mao's former secretary is one of them. He's in his 90s. Other senior figures from within the party who are just saying, okay, we need to have change.

They were focusing specifically on the issue of censorship and propaganda. But it shows that as China is developing, and its economy and its society is being transformed, a lot of people, right across the spectrum are saying, okay, we need some political change to go with this.

BLOCK: Rob, are you able to foresee any broad impact of this Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, any long-term effects that it might have on the society there?

GIFFORD: Well, the bizarre thing, Melissa, is that when you just ask people what they think about it, you get one of two answers. The first is, who? Who's that? Never heard of him. The second is, oh, yeah, I heard about that, whatever.

You know, people's lives are so different. When you look at what happened, for instance in the Soviet Union in 1975, when Andrei Sakharov was awarded the prize, it was such a huge deal because Soviet society was so Soviet. It was so communist.

The Chinese Communist Party here has given so much social and economic freedom to the people, although not political freedom, that they don't really care. They're too busy making a killing on the stock market or in real estate. And that is the really striking thing is that that is where the change is really happening right now.

There may be some political change to come, but I'm not sure that this is going to be a massive step in bringing it about.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Rob Gifford, speaking with us from Shanghai. Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Melissa.

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