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China Expands Crackdown on Free Expression

Protester holds mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping during demonstration for Chinese journalist Gao Yu, Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, and Chinese lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Chinese liaison office, Hong Kong, May 11, 2014.

Protester holds mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping during demonstration for Chinese journalist Gao Yu, Hong Kong publisher Yao Wentian, and Chinese lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, Chinese liaison office, Hong Kong, May 11, 2014.

China's Communist Party crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression appears to be intensifying.

Party officials this week issued several rulings against civil rights activists and announced new regulations that bar reporters from writing critical news stories without approval.

Draft rules that would ban lawyers from posting comments about cases online have also surfaced.

Three activists were sentenced to prison Thursday after calling on government officials to disclose their wealth to the public — two of them who were members of the loosely organized New Citizens Movement were given six-and-a-half years. The sentencing follows last week's announcement that prominent activist and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang would be formally charged with causing a disturbance and obtaining illegal access to personal information.

Pu's charges come more than a month after he was detained for participating in a private gathering to plan events marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests.

Criticism forbidden

China's media watchdog issued a notice that reporters were forbidden from writing critical stories without first receiving approval, including posting them online on other websites or social media. Authorities say the moves are meant to address the worsening problem of reporters extorting money for stories.

And while it stopped short of criticizing the move, even the state-run Global Times noted the regulations were sparking a "discussion" over authorities increased control of the media.

Li Datong, a former reporter who was dismissed from his job with a state-run media organization because of his opinions, says he does not see much new in the regulations, given the control authorities already enjoy over the media.

He does, however, note that the move is part of a worrying leftist trend.

"It all reminds me of the nonsensical accusations of the Cultural Revolution," he said, explaining that party publications have recently criticized Zhang Yimou's film Coming Home, and how a top official recently accused a top party research group, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, of being infiltrated by Western forces.

Directives such as the one barring critical journalism, he added, may not necessarily come from the highest party echelons, but are more a reflection of the current environment and how each individual department — in the this instances, Beijing's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television — is looking for ways to conform and maintain stability by taking more extreme measures.

Just as reporters are seeing increased restrictions, the All China Lawyers Association, a government-run bar association, has recently drafted regulations that could ban lawyers from using the media or the Internet to draw attention to their cases.

"We have interpreted that as kind of a gag order," said William Nee, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Amnesty International. "Lawyers often use social media [such as] Weibo, which is kind of the Twitter or Facebook-like service, and they use it to a great effect in trying to gather public support in their cases and make their cases online for their clients. And this has proven to be fairly effective."

According top Lin Chong-Pin, a Taiwan-based China analyst, the crackdown on dissent is part of President Xi Jinping's effort to shield himself from criticism as he promotes ambitious reforms that impact the vested interests of those inside and outside of government.

Lin argues that Xi is trying to avoid the mistakes of former top Chinese official Hu Yaobang, a man Xi considers his spiritual godfather. Hu's death in the spring of 1989 was the trigger for the massive protests in Tiananmen Square.

"Xi Jinping is determined not to make the same mistakes made by Hu Yaobang," he said. "That's what he is doing. So you'll notice not only the growing assertiveness along the coast of China with its neighbors. But also domestically arresting dissidents. That is also a toughness to sort of protect himself against possible criticism from conservatives."

Amnesty International's Nee says it is hard to say what Xi's endgame might be.

"In some ways I think what they want to do is try to make progress in the country and take up many of the issues that people in civil society like the New Citizens Movement are calling for, but doing it on their own terms and kind of monopolize the political process," said Nee. "So in some ways they're reacting and absorbing some of the things people in civil society are saying, and at the same time they are cracking down on them and not allowing them to participate."

In the long run, he adds, that is not only a violation of human rights, but a risky political strategy.