Speak up, shut down

Flickr/Newtown grafitti
Flickr/Newtown grafitti

By Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

This story is based on a January 20, 2013 post at to here knows when.

Jia is scared she may never see her father again. As a known practitioner of the banned Falun Gong religion, her father has been dogged by the local authorities in their small village in southern China for years. While the world watched the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he was hauled into prison; in what was widely considered a national clean-up effort of a sort. Back then, The New York Times reported that poor neighbourhoods in the nation’s capital were disappearing as the government erected walls to hide the city’s grimy underside from hordes of tourists. When I visited Beijing months later, I found that many of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods were still hidden from main roads. On the other side of the country, Jia said her family was shamed as her father likewise disappeared from public view. Last year he was released, only to be again stripped of his freedom just months later. At the time of writing, he was back in prison, and his future remains uncertain.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), in 2012 China held over 1.6 million convicted prisoners. However, the ICPS estimates that once pre-trial detainees are taken into account, the country’s total prison population could be over 2.3 million. According to classified diplomatic cables published on WikiLeaks, in 2009, 3000 of these prisoners were in the Tibetan Autonomous Zone (TAR); 30 of which were monks or nuns. The cable also states that “[e]ighty-four prisoners involved in the “March 14 Incident” are now serving prison terms”. The ‘March 14 Incident’ refers to a series of independence protests that occurred in Tibetan communities during the previous year. According to Amnesty International (AI), last year in the TAR “[n]umerous people allegedly involved in anti-government protests were beaten, detained, subjected to enforced disappearance or sentenced following unfair trials”. In its 2012 report, AI states that two Tibetan protesters “were believed to have died because of injuries sustained from police beatings”, while other protesters in Sichuan (a province adjacent to TAR, with a large Tibetan population) were reportedly shot at by security forces. However, you don’t need to be Tibetan to become one of what AI describes as “hundreds of thousands of people” who have been “arbitrarily deprived…of their liberty…[in] administrative detention, including RTL [Re-education through Labour] camps, without recourse to independent courts”. As AI also reports, last year lawyers who took on “controversial cases faced harassment and threats from the authorities and, in some cases, the loss of professional licences”. In this context, once local authorities decided Jia’s father was fair game, he never stood a chance.

Unfortunately, there is little in China’s justice (is that the right word?) system that is unique, or even particularly outstanding. According to the ICPS, China convicts 121 people per 100,000 citizens, though based on estimates of the total prison population, as many as 170 per 100,000 could be  imprisoned. Last October, Bloomberg reported that according to numbers from the US Department of Justice, the US prison population is 2.2 million. In other words, “with a rate of 730 people per 100,000, the U.S. jails a higher proportion of its citizens than any other country”. Sadly, even this is an understatement. The previous year, a statement from the US Bureau of Justice indicated that over 6 million Americans were either in prison, on parole, in jail or on probation. As Adam Gopnik rightly concluded in a 2012 article for the New Yorker, “there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America…than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height”. The reasons for this staggering figure are complex, but one thing that certainly isn’t helping is the growing trend of authorities targeting protesters. According to OccupyArrests, as of May 7753 activists have been arrested in the US since 2011. Comparably, the number of bankers prosecuted in relation to the 2008 financial crisis that started the protests remains zero. On May 20, 17 former homeowners who protested against the lack of these prosecutions outside the Justice Department in Washington were themselves arrested. It seems that in the US, you are more likely to be arrested for attending a political rally than scuttling the world economy.

Of course, you don’t need to travel to Washington or southern China to be arrested for publicly expressing a political view – Melbourne would suffice. On July 1, 2011, 11 Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists were arrested in QV Square and charged with trespassing in a public place (somehow that’s a thing) and besetting the premises of a Max Brenner Chocolate Bar (in other words, blocking public access). Last July, the cases were dismissed by the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, with Magistrate Garnett finding that the 130 police officers deployed to the square actually did more to impede public access to the chocolate bar than the protesters. The court also found that the business was able to operate normally, despite the presence of the BDS activists outside. Although the case was dismissed, the main thrust of the prosecution argument was nothing short of disturbing. Essentially, the case was that by entering a public place with the intent to express a political opinion, the protesters were trespassing if they in any way impeded the “normal activities” of others.

Australia already convicts a higher percentage of its own people than China (according to the ICPS), though it remains far behind the US. While laws restricting political speech play a relatively minor role in filling our prisons, they certainly don’t help. We spend $3.2 billion every year on locking people up, which according to Australian Red Cross Chief Executive Officer Robert Tickner is “double the numbers of 20 years ago”. Tickner argues that we need to rethink why we lock people up. I’d suggest rethinking what kind of country we want to be. Do we want to sterilise the streets of divergent ideas, as Beijing did in 2008? Or, do we want to have a country where people don’t fear voicing their opinions?

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