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No room for free thought

China has launched a perplexing drive against even minimal dissidence.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2011 21:08 IST

People power in the Arab world and, in a less history-making manner, bits of metropolitan India have been dominating front pages now. Buried in the back pages is State power: alive and, literally, kicking in China. The arrest of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has at least attracted international criticism. But Mr Ai's arrest is only the tip of a repressive iceberg. Over the past six weeks, says Human Rights Watch, the Chinese system has arrested at least 100 members of civil society.

These arrests have gone well beyond the normal political dissidents. Prominent lawyers, environmentalists, journalists and artists have all been caught in the net. Their families are being harassed and Beijing has ominously warned its citizens that the "law is not a shield". Mr Ai, for example, is famous for politically conscientious artwork but was also chosen to design the famous 'bird's nest' Olympic stadium in Beijing. This crackdown is among the worst since the Tiananmen Square massacre. And it is all the more remarkable given China has become the world's second largest economy and is exerting economic and strategic muscle throughout the world. That the rulers of such a powerful structure should be so terrified of a few fringe elements among their own people is a disturbing contrast.

There is an assumption that the source of this attack of nerves is the Arab revolt. Hence the Chinese government's preemptive police action against 'jasmine' activities, its attempts to put a cyber lock and key on the internet and social networking sites. But there is a curious mix of the sinister and the absurd that such a polity should seek to enforce a zero-dissent culture on 1.3 billion people. It is often argued that the succession struggle breaking out as Hu Jintao's reign enters its last lap is the fount of much of this paranoia. However, Beijing's blues also seem to be a product of a need to be riding at the head of a broader nationalistic sentiment and a sense of geopolitical entitlement. That Beijing should launch such a crackdown when there is no outward evidence of upheaval and its own moment in the sun is coming is disturbing. It indicates a government strangely unsure of its legitimacy, wary of its own people. Which is why New Delhi and other capitals are watching China's external actions so carefully, worrying and watching out for any evidence that domestic paranoia is feeding into foreign policy practice.