Simon Tisdall
January 14, 2009

Last week’s jailing for six years of veteran dissident Wang Rongqing for “subversion of state power” was more than just another unpleasant instance of official vindictiveness, supporters and human rights groups say. China is facing a turbulent year of deepening economic hardship, social unrest, and tense anniversaries. The authorities are running scared. And so they made an example of Wang.

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The diagnosis seems to apply to other prominent dissidents, also feeling the heat as economic boom times fade and political jitters increase. Liu Xiaobo, a noted literary scholar, has been held without charge since 8 December. His apparent offence was supporting a new campaign for political and legal reform known as Charter 08.

According to Amnesty International, Liu’s family does not know where he is, he has no access to a lawyer, and he has yet to be charged or brought before a court. “The use of such detention … is arbitrary and in violation of international human rights standards, including the rights to liberty, security of person, and fair trial,” said Amnesty’s Roseann Rife.

Charter 08 was signed by 303 Chinese scholars, lawyers and officials, many of whom have reportedly since been harassed or placed under surveillance. China expert James Pringle says the campaign, modelled on Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 in cold war Czechoslovakia, “is the first real opposition to the Communist leadership since Tiananmen Square” and is widely seen as “a threat to the party’s monopoly on power”.

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