BEIJING – Chinese authorities have shut down or frozen the microblog accounts of several prominent liberal intellectuals and harassed rights lawyers lobbying against unofficial "black jails," underlining the determination of the country's new leadership to control dissent even as it vows to root out corruption.
The moves over the last few days occurred around the time officials announced that a senior official was being investigated for graft, months after a prominent journalist accused him of wrongdoing. The probe against Liu Tienan, deputy chairman of China's economic planning agency, was heralded by the Chinese press as proof that the battle against corruption is best fought when authorities allow public participation.
"The authorities and the people combined their strengths in this case, and it is an encouragement to the public's power in fighting corruption," said a state-run daily, the Beijing News, in a commentary.
But in other instances, the authoritarian government has shown an unwavering intent to clamp down on anyone who seeks to publicly pressure it into social or political change. The message appears to be that if any reform is on the agenda, the Communist Party will push it through on its own terms.
"The controls are tighter than ever," said Li Cheng, an expert on China's elite politics at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. "The challenges are greater, so the suppression is escalating."
Small groups of activists have been detained in Beijing and other cities for holding banners calling for officials to publicly declare their assets — a key anti-graft measure that the government has been reluctant to implement. One activist, Liu Ping, has been accused of inciting subversion, a vaguely worded charge frequently used to suppress dissidents.
Authorities are also maintaining a years-long effort to quash legal activism.
On Monday, several rights lawyers attempting to visit one of China's unofficial detention centers — also known as "black jails" — in the southwestern city of Ziyang were beaten by unidentified men, said Beijing attorney Li Heping, who was contacted by one of the lawyers.
The efforts to police discourse are also being ramped up in the Chinese blogosphere, where users often challenge the government's version of events and its control over information.
Over the weekend, authorities apparently removed all microblog accounts belonging to the writer Hao Qun, better known by his pen name Murong Xuecun, from four different sites. His subsequent efforts to set up new accounts have been blocked, he said.
No explanation was provided for the shutdown of his accounts on the popular Sina Corp. platform, Weibo, and three other microblogging sites, Hao said. He said his Weibo account had about 4 million followers.
"The ruling party is losing in the field of public opinion, which is threatening its legitimacy," Hao said. "Now, they must exert tighter control, and that's why they have gone on the offense in public opinion."
The blog closure could have been related to Hao's recent post of a two-line verse critical of the party's authoritarian rule, or his posts criticizing the freezing of a microblog belonging to He Bing, an outspoken, liberal professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.
In a rare move, the official China Internet Network Information Center explained in state media reports Friday that He's account had been suspended because he was "intentionally spreading rumors."
The professor has issued a statement protesting the suspension as being illegal. "It is every citizen's responsibility to unswervingly promote a government that rules by law," He said.
The ratcheting up of controls on Chinese microblog platforms — targeting verified accounts of well-known opinion leaders with hundreds of thousands of followers — appears designed to send warnings that China's leaders will not give ground to its political critics, no matter how popular they might be.
President Xi Jinping has made fighting official corruption a priority, and the investigation against Liu had suggested that the government was willing to allow the public to play a role.
The investigation was foreshadowed by public allegations against him five months ago by Luo Changping, deputy chief editor of Caijing magazine. The official probe against Liu was announced Sunday, and on Tuesday state media reported that Liu has been removed from his posts as part of investigations into "serious disciplinary violations."
At the same time, there are concerns that the government is cracking down on the kind of public discourse that could help expose official misdeeds.
Rumors have begun to circulate online that party authorities issued a directive to some college campuses that seven topics are now barred from class discussion, including press freedom, judicial independence, civil rights, civil society and the party's historic mistakes.
The rumor could not be verified. Several law and politics professors contacted by the AP said they had not directly seen or heard about such an instruction, nicknamed the "Seven Don't Mentions." Several academics said it would be impossible to enforce.
He Weifang, a legal scholar at Peking University, said no topic has been off-limits in his classroom.
"I can speak of everything. There is nothing that cannot be discussed," he said. "If the law does not talk about civil rights, there's no law, because the law is about protecting one's rights."
Veteran journalist Gao Yu said that an edict, or the rumors of one, could be related to a broader ideological strategy laid out by the party's new leadership in an unpublicized meeting earlier this year that identifies seven key "problems" propaganda officials should tackle. She said they include the concept of democracy and constitutionalism, civil society, neoliberalism and the Western concept of the press.
The strategy was laid out in a document issued by the general office of the party's central committee, the contents of which were briefly leaked online, Gao said. She said she verified details of the document with retired, high-ranking propaganda officials.
Measures recommended in the document include efforts to "better broadcast" the party's voice and "strengthen the party's leadership of the media," Gao said.
Gao expressed concern that the new leadership was veering toward the more authoritarian era of Mao Zedong that lasted into the 1970s.
"We can see that the party currently faces a lot of problems, from environment pollution to the income gap," Gao said. "But this marks a big step backwards. Who would have known that they are going back to Mao Zedong's era?"
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