Yang Zili and the paranoid regime

A journalist’s plight demonstrates the depth of China’s present illness.

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Chinese journalist Yang Zili first appeared in international headlines in 2001 after being arrested in Beijing and charged with “subverting state authority.” His crime was starting the “New Youth Society,” a salon with the stated mission of “seeking a road for social reform.” Mr. Yang eventually served eight years in prison for his involvement.

Once released from prison, Mr. Yang joined the Transition Institute. Unlike many other nongovernmental organizations in China, the Transition Institute isn’t engaged in direct social action but rather focuses on research work as a think tank. While there, Mr. Yang studied Chinese social issues and proved to be a prolific writer. Much of his work was on equal access to education and migrant-worker rights. His friends applauded his return to the public sphere within a profession that still allowed him to promote social change.

We had no idea how quickly the tide would turn. Mr. Yang is now in hiding. Chinese authorities last year detained three leaders of the Transition Institute and six people indirectly involved, including the lawyer Xia Lin. The organization remains paralyzed. It suffered this fate despite having a far more nuanced understanding of political struggle than did the New Youth Society in 2001.

The similarities and differences between these two cases reflect the deep uncertainty that all Chinese citizens face when confronted with contemporary “socialist rule of law.”

The New Youth Society focused on hot-button social issues like government corruption, unemployment among workers from state-owned enterprises, and rural development. Members were at first split over what to do with their activities. Either they could operate in secret, attempting to disguise their group from the authorities, or they could be entirely open, affirming their discussions in hopes of avoiding the impression they were being covert. Mr. Yang and others compromised: They didn’t actively promote their ideas, nor did they conceal them.

Mr. Yang later conceded that he and his compatriots had no understanding of just how brutal political struggles can be under the authoritarian banner of “proletarian dictatorship.” Their trial was closed to the public, and even Li Yuzhou, an undercover officer involved in their arrest, believed their sentences were excessive. There was no independent judicial system at work; there was only politics.

The decisive factor in the case against Mr. Yang was a set of written instructions fromJiang Zemin , China’s president at the time. “Because instructions had come down from heaven,” Mr. Yang recalled years later, “every material fact was forcibly crushed.” And so was the process of justice.

The Transition Institute was supposed to be a different story. Its young researchers were idealistic and eager, but their energies remained focused on understanding and solving specific social issues. They believed that only by solving these problems could individual rights be advanced and the foundations laid for constitutional transformation. By being more open and more professional than the New Youth Society, they believed that they would enjoy greater safety and support for their work.

What they failed to realize was that the question of safety was out of their hands—it was a matter of the will and needs of China’s state-security apparatus.

The axe fell in October 2014, when Executive Director Huang Kaiping and co-founder He Zhengjun were taken away. The work of the Transition Institute ground to a halt, and everyone involved became a suspect. Mr. Yang fled Beijing and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Why is this happening? Because 14 years after Mr. Yang was first detained, political leaders still disregard the rule of law, while China has no sufficient judicial protection of basic human rights. Yet beyond such partial explanations is a deeper psychological cause: paranoia, plain and simple. In China’s stability-obsessed regime, paranoia is so institutionalized that it drives state power compulsively.

Consider Jiang Zemin’s interest in the New Youth Society case. The only explanation for such high-profile interference is that Mr. Jiang truly believed in the existence of conspirators hoping to use book clubs to subvert the political power of the Chinese Communist Party. Once he accepted that, the conspirators had to be punished severely for the sake of social stability.

The Transition Institute case is fundamentally similar. The police behind the case have built up its intensity in a bid to take credit, to present results. Meanwhile state leaders, confident in the view that unspecified enemies are closing in on all sides, believe that the Transition Institute is a stronghold for “color revolution,” a reference to the movements that toppled governments in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere. They believe that hostile forces at home and abroad are plotting their downfall, to “topple China” with a popular revolution.

The most basic forms of dissident activity—petitioning, holding up a placard—can bring the secret police to one’s door, even if the act is little more than a web post. The fate of the Transition Institute couldn’t be more normal and predictable in an abnormal society.

All of this flies in the face of rule of law. The clear character of rule of law is the stability of the law, the reliability of the law for the people. But when a patient suffers from paranoia, it is impossible to predict their actions.

Even if the members of the New Youth Society had better understood the nature of political struggle, tragedy still would have been unavoidable. The founders of the Transition Institute were far more savvy but nonetheless met with tragedy.

Thanks to international pressure and exposure, Huang Kaiping’s release was obtained this month, 110 days after his secret detention. But other members of Transition—including co-founders Guo Yushan and He Zhengju—are still locked up. The lack of any improvement in their condition is a cause of concern.

To understand the dangers but still be unable to avoid them: This is the greater tragedy, revealing the unpredictable nature of a regime bent on maintaining stability even through terror, exposing the depth of China’s present illness.

China long ago entered the era of pluralism of ideas. We have all sorts of people, with all sorts of voices. But no forces exist in order to overthrow the current political system. They are here because China has so many problems—political, economic and social. As long as forums exist to address these problems, there is little risk of a broader crisis. Which is why the present illness must be treated. Ending official paranoia is imperative if China is to return to reason and to the logic of rule of law.

Xiao Shu is the pen name of the journalist Chen Min, formerly a senior columnist at Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly newspaper. Mr. Chen is currently a member of the editorial board at China’s Yanhuang Chunqiu journal. This piece was translated from the original Chinese by David Bandurski.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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