Opinion at the Wall Street Journal: After the Peace Prize, China’s democracy activists remain wary and watched
On Friday, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is imprisoned in China. There is substantial government surveillance and tracking of the public in the communist regime, which we’ve discussed before. Last month, it was reported that China is the latest country to require cellphone users to prove their identity when signing up for service. (Mexico, Vietnam, Spain and Japan are all seeking to identify some types of cellphone users and create databases.) In January, it was revealed that the government was scanning individuals’ text messages, and cellphone companies in Beijing and Shanghai were “told to suspend text services to cellphone users who are found to have sent messages with ‘illegal or unhealthy content.'”
But there have been surveillance failures by the Chinese government, such as one that concerned computer software. Last year, China sought to require censorship software (called Green Dam-Youth Escort) be preinstalled on computers sold in the country. But, the software was plagued both by technical problems and bad publicity from privacy and civil liberties restrictions. China decided to postpone the mandatory preinstallation, but some computer makers forged ahead anyway. However, China also said that schools, Internet cafes and other public computers would need to have Green Dam-Youth Escort installed, but there were reports that some schools in China are removing the Web-filtering software because of technological problems.
Now, in a column at the Wall Street Journal, Chinese activist Zhang Zuhua discusses the state of surveillance, privacy rights and civil liberties in the country:
Last week, my friend, the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Then nearly two dozen Chinese Communist Party elders—some of them highly ranked officials or retired high officials—published a letter this week blasting the government’s clampdown on free expression. And Friday, more than 100 Chinese scholars, rights advocates and citizens (including myself) issued a letter hailing the Nobel Committee’s choice and calling for democratic reforms.
These developments have invigorated the pro-democracy movement here. Yet the most profound condition, living under the rule of China’s one-party state, continues to be the sense of insecurity and fear that arises from the awareness that freedom and human rights are never guaranteed. At any time, a citizen can suffer arbitrary persecution and have no “rights” to fall back on. […]
I can offer my own experience as an example. In 2008, I co-wrote a manifesto called Charter 08, calling for greater freedom of expression and human rights and for free elections in China. Just as we were about to announce the Charter that December, police ransacked my home, confiscated books, notes and computers, emptied my family bank accounts and took me in for interrogation. They then released me to “residential surveillance,” which has meant, for nearly two years now, that police officers follow me whenever I go out . During “sensitive periods,” such as an anniversary of the 1989 June Fourth Massacre around Tiananmen Square, they prevent me from leaving my building at all. My case, of course, is unusual. But cases like mine are sufficiently known to make insecurity widespread. […]
I learned of the [Nobel prize] news from the Internet, as did many of my fellow activists: We use proxy sites to get past the government firewall and read news sources outside of China. Some of us broke down in tears. There were reports on Twitter of fireworks on university campuses immediately after the announcement. Many gathered in restaurants or at friends’ houses to celebrate all over the country.