BEIJING — Teng Biao, a bespectacled moon-faced lawyer who has made a name for himself by supporting political dissidents, walked out of the Thursday morning class he teaches at Beijing’s University of Politics and Law, and straight into the arms of the police.
He was going for a ride, they told him, to a small town outside the capital.
That is all anyone knows about Mr. Teng’s current fate, all he was able to put in a Twitter feed as he was taken away. Callers to his mobile phone later got a message that it was out of service.
Teng is one of hundreds of Chinese citizens who in recent days have been taken away to unknown destinations, or put under house arrest, or put under close surveillance, or stopped from leaving the country, or forbidden to speak to journalists or otherwise had their freedom curtailed.
With the approach of Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo honoring this year’s laureate Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political prisoner, the Chinese government has gone to extraordinarily lengths to stop any of his friends or family from attending the ceremony.
“The scale and diligence of the security forces” in rounding up or silencing Mr. Liu’s supporters in China “is unprecedented” says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher with Human Rights Watch.
Liu’s wife under house arrest
Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since shortly after her husband won the prestigious prize, and forbidden to make contact with the outside world. Liu’s two brothers have been told they cannot leave the country or talk to reporters.
For the first time since 1936, when the Nazi government forbade German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky to collect his Nobel Peace Prize, there will be nobody at Friday’s ceremony to accept the gold medal and $1.4 million award.
Liu himself is serving an 11 year jail sentence for subversion because of his role in drafting “Charter 08”, a public call for democratic political reform in China. The verdict, handed down last December 25th, branded him “a major criminal.”
One Chinese activist and friend of Liu’s who plans to attend the ceremony, Wan Yanhai, can do so only because he has been in the United States for the past several months after fleeing police harassment of his AIDS support group Aizhixing.
But he is running a major risk, he says. A policeman told an Aizhixing board member last week “that if I went to Oslo I may not be able to come back home” to China, Mr. Wan said in an interview by Skype.
An open letter
While she was still allowed to communicate with friends, Liu Xia issued an open letter inviting over 100 activists and public figures to go to Oslo. Of more than 30 people on the list whom The Christian Science Monitor contacted or sought to contact this week, all but one had been disappeared, detained, threatened, followed, or otherwise harassed by the police.
The Chinese authorities’ harsh response at home to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel prize has been echoed in Beijing’s vitriolic international campaign against the Norwegian committee that chose Liu, and attempts to persuade governments not to attend Friday’s ceremony.
Nobel committee staging an ‘anti-Chinese farce’
“The committee is organizing an anti-Chinese farce” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said on Tuesday. “We will not change because of interference by a few clowns.”
The Chinese language media make no mention of Liu, the Chinese internet is scrubbed clean of his name and all his articles, and he is unknown to the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Government run papers published in English for foreigners’ consumption, however, have been unrelenting in their attacks on him and the Nobel prize committee.
“They see people like Liu Xiaobo as enemies of public order and they see public order as a necessary precondition for getting China out of poverty and for continuing to maintain the regime” explains Sidney Rittenberg, the first American to join the Chinese Communist party and who is intimately familiar with the Chinese political system. “To have this person feted internationally is a challenge and a humiliation that is not easy to put up with.”
The ferocity of Beijing’s rhetoric has surprised some observers.
“But in sensitive areas where they see a threat to the regime’s credibility, they seem to lose all sense of proportion,” says Michael Davis, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “And in those areas, the more hardline views are in the ascendant.”
“They can be extraordinarily vehement and crude,” adds Kenneth Lieberthal, a veteran China analyst at the University of Michigan, but in some respects that has paid off, he points out. Such allegedly close US allies as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan have said they will not send representatives to Friday’s ceremony, following Beijing’s wishes.
Elsewhere in the world, however, the angry language “is counterproductive” suggests Prof. Davis. “When people hear this coming out of China they see why Liu Xiaobo has got into such trouble and what is wrong with China, just by the extreme vitriol of the comments.”
“This has given fuel to a general wave of displeasure with China all over the world and that is not a good thing” either for China or for the world, argues Mr. Rittenberg, if global economic, climate, and other problems are to be solved.
For Li Datong, a newspaper editor sacked for publishing controversial articles, Beijing’s anger is merely an expression of its loss of face. But it also indicates a change in the government’s calculation of its global influence, he says.
“Once upon a time, Beijing made compromises because the government knew it needed help from abroad”, says Mr. Li. “Today, though, the government thinks it can afford this kind of behavior, that it will not damage Chinese interests.”