The Chinese government is allowing its people less freedom of speech than two years ago, dashing hopes that last year's Olympic Games would lead to greater liberalisation, a leading Chinese dissident has claimed.
By Peter Foster in Shihezi
He Weifang, 49, professor of law at Shihezi University was 'exiled' after signing the Charter 08 petition calling for democratic reform in China in December 2008 (Photo: PETER FOSTER)
He Weifang, a celebrated law professor and lead signatory to last year's Charter 08 petition calling for democratic reforms in China, said the ruling Communist Party was currently engaged in a fresh wave of repressive internet and media censorship.
Even allowing for the Communist party's highly conservative approach to any kind of reform - embodied in Deng Xiaoping's famous phrase "Crossing the river by feeling for stones" – he said China was moving backwards on basic freedoms.
"The situation at the moment is that the river has deepened and the Party has got scared, so it has pulled back, fearing that the waters will rise up and drown them. In the last two years this pulling back from the water has got worse," he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
Professor He, once a leading light at the Beijing University Law School, was speaking from the one-bedroom flat in the tiny provincial city of Shihezi in China's arid northwest where he was 'exiled' last month in punishment, he believes, for signing Charter 08.
He cited last year's anti-government riots in Tibet, protests over the Olympic torch relay, fears of a rising tide of nationalism and the forthcoming 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square killings on June 4 as the main reasons behind the crackdown.
"The signs of repression are very clear. Liu Xiaobo [the lead architect of Charter 08] is still under house arrest and my own internet discussion forum has also been shut down," he added.
As a well-known proponent of legal reform, Prof He has published articles for almost 20 years calling for an independent judiciary in China, but his writings, tolerated until recently, are now seen as "problematic".
"I think I was tolerated as an individual, but Charter 08 was a co-ordinated, collective action and it was that element of organisation that provoked such a hostile reaction from the Party. Newspapers that used to publish strong articles arguing for reform no longer dare," he said.
Prof He, 49, is among a group of 303 Chinese academics and influential commentators who signed Charter 08 in a self-conscious effort to revive the democratic, reformist ideals espoused by students in demonstrations across China 20 years ago.
The Charter, which contains a blistering indictment of the failings of Communist rule in China, has left intellectuals divided, with many arguing that its criticisms were too direct and ultimately counter-productive.
However Prof He disagrees. "I favour direct criticism. Charter 08 is a list of the mistakes the Party has made and the crimes it has committed. It is important for people to learn about the truth, because the truth is the only basis for creating change."
Prof He paid a personal price for refusing to withdraw his signature from the petition when his appointment to a post in Zhejiang University in southern China was blocked last year by what he describes as "an invisible hand".
Instead he was "offered" a position at the little-known Shihezi University in Xinjiang where he teaches just six hours a week, living far away from his wife in Beijing and passing long hours listening to Strauss waltzes and reading books on Silk Road archaeology.
He is sanguine about his two years in exile in Xinjiang which he treats with grim humour, knowing that he follows in the footsteps of several renowned Chinese intellectuals such as the writer Wang Meng and poet Ai Qing, who were exiled to Xinjiang during the Mao era.
"When the head of Beijing University suggested Xinjiang, I said 'ah yes, what a good idea. I don't suppose I shall miss any dramatic legal or political reforms in the next two years," he recalls with a roar of laughter.
The modern breed of Chinese students Prof He now teaches have a far more conservative outlook than in the days when he was a young faculty member out demonstrating on the streets of Beijing in 1989.
"We students of 20 years ago were more idealistic, we talked about politics and we worried about the future of the country. That's how '6/4' [the Tiananmen Square protests] could happen," he said. "Students these days are under all kinds of different pressures. They worry about finding a job and purchasing an apartment. They do not like to speak out about politics now."
However despite their far-from-revolutionary attitude to life, Prof He sees little sign that China's rulers are prepared to trust ordinary people with a real say into how their country is run.
There has been progress in some areas, he admits, citing a growing responsiveness from the government to individual concerns – such as last year's contaminated milk scandal and a recent scandal over prison brutality – but believes it is skin-deep.
"There has been change to some extent, but the response to last year's Tibetan protests shows that the changes are cosmetic, not fundamental. The Party moves only when it is pushed," he said.
"What happened 20 years ago [in Tiananmen Square] caused unimaginable trauma in the Communist Party. It is a moment from which they have never recovered."
Prof He believes that that "trauma" and the fact that the bloody repression of the demonstrators was endorsed by Deng Xiaoping, the hugely popular father-figure of China's "opening up", has made it impossible for the Party to embrace meaningful reform.
"The Party needs to admit its crimes, but it cannot. It fears that to admit it was wrong would undermine its entire claim to legitimacy. But if they do not adapt, then that process of transformation will not occur peacefully, and if the extreme violence comes, then there will be no Communist Party. It is a case of adapt or die."