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23 years after Tiananmen, China is still paying

A police officer patrols as part of heavy security at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (AFP/Mark Ralston)

The annual crackdown on commemorations of the June 4 anniversary of the brutal suppression of student-led demonstrations based in Tiananmen Square in 1989 Beijing is under way, according to Agence France-Presse. What's concerning is the number of writers and activists for whom "crackdown" is the new normal.

Two high-profile cases have brought the stresses of constant home surveillance and intimidation into the international media. Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng's flight from his 19-month house arrest has made him a household name, and facilitated his temporary relocation to New York City this week. Bizarrely, the LA Times reported Monday that despite his escape, his village remains under security lockdown, patrolled by plain-clothed security officials and paramilitaries. Artist and documentarian Ai Weiwei, who was held incommunicado for 80 days last year, also faces continual interaction with secret police, according to the U.K. Daily Telegraph. The Canadian Globe and Mail documents the security cameras surrounding the artist's Beijing compound--and reports that Ai is followed whenever he leaves.

Neither Chen Guangcheng nor Ai Weiwei is a professional journalist, but both were targeted for highlighting injustice--Chen advocated for victims of forced abortion, Ai for children killed as shoddily constructed schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Both also responded to extralegal police harassment by recording and publicizing it: Chen's supporters helped him broadcast a video of his confinement on the Internet, and Ai turned footage of an encounter with police into a documentary. We have them to thank for our increased understanding of what dozens, maybe hundreds of others experience in China if they criticize the government.

The Chinese state believes these individuals pose a threat to "stability," as exiled writer Yu Jie outlines in an opinion piece in The Washington Post this week. In fact, what they threaten is information control--the system the propaganda department has used to scrub challenges to Communist Party rule, like Tiananmen, from the record.

To defend that system, China is prepared to go a long way. Domestic law enforcement agencies have outspent the military for two years in a row, according to The Associated Press. Over a quarter of one county's 6,700 officials are employed under a stability budget, and neighbors and colleagues of activists are paid to keep tabs on them, the AP reported.

That spending is misguided. China's economy is growing at its slowest pace since 1999 and local government debt is running at approximately 10.7 trillion yuan (US$1.7 trillion), according to Reuters. Social unrest fused with political discontent to take a student-led pro-democracy protest mainstream back in 1989. If the downswing continues, it is financial hardship that will fuel the kind of mass incidents top leaders fear, not the comparatively few writers and dissidents they are working so hard to isolate.

With a leadership change due later this year, pressure on the regime's critics will only increase. But it is essential that the next political generation relax censorship of Tiananmen. The tragic history contains a truth that still applies today: Information is not the enemy. Controlling and distorting it will undermine social harmony, not strengthen it. And silence is not stability.

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