On May 10, as tens of thousands of students rallied here for the third day of government-approved protests against NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, magazine editor Cao Jiahe was taken to a small room in another part of the city, where he was blindfolded, tied with belts and beaten by security officials. When he was released four days later, according to an open letter by his friend Jiang Qisheng, his “whole body was bruised, and his skin was lacerated. He was too horrible to look at.”
Police did this to Cao because in early May he collected signatures to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre near Tiananmen Square. While sanctioning anti-American demonstrations, the government has also launched the most severe crackdown on pro-democracy activism since the period immediately following the 1989 protests. Jittery over the upcoming anniversary and escalating social unrest, the government has arrested or detained since January nearly every prominent activist, especially those connected with the dissident-led China Democracy Party. Liberal publications have been closed down, experimental art performances canceled and the press warned against writing on sensitive topics like worker unrest. During anti-NATO demonstrations, dissidents were detained to prevent them from shifting protesters’ attention to problems at home. After releasing the letter protesting Cao Jiahe’s treatment, Jiang Qisheng was arrested as well.
Indeed, since the NATO bombing, the government has intensified its pre-June 4 crackdown, denouncing concepts of democracy and human rights as synonymous with US hegemony. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, ran an article in late May condemning overseas democracy activists as traitors to their country. In a rare public mention of the events of 1989, the article said that if the Tiananmen Square protests had succeeded, China would have been “turned into a dependency of the hegemonies.” Dissident Zha Jianguo told the South China Morning Post that when he was detained during the anti-NATO demonstrations, security officials warned him to be extra careful, because now “the Chinese government will no longer need to worry about foreign pressure over human rights issues.”
This backlash was reflected in the slogans of many student protesters, who put national sovereignty above concerns for the liberal values embraced by their counterparts ten years ago. “We still respect many things about America,” a master’s student in political science at Beijing University said, as he joined protesters on campus. “Human rights, democracy, the legal system. But we absolutely cannot tolerate an infringement on our country’s sovereignty.” A wall poster nearby echoed his sentiment: “We want human rights,” it read, “but we want sovereignty more.”
Yet the ideals of human rights and national self-determination were not always seen as irreconcilable, as many students tried to claim ostensibly “Western” values as their own. In one widely applauded posted letter, the anonymous writer urged students to “take the spirit of Gandhi and Mandela and, together with Americans, build an alliance that opposes war and hatred and becomes a true protector of the great power of peace, human rights and democracy.”