Dozens have been detained and now face criminal charges in relation to these inchoate calls. Others have faced different kinds of harassment, including beatings and house arrest. But the freeze runs deeper. Since February some of the country’s top defence lawyers have vanished. Activists for villagers’ rights and the environment have faced repression. Bloggers have been rounded up. Members of a big underground (ie, non-state) church in Beijing, stopped from meeting in their usual building, were arrested as they tried to worship outside.
A second reason for doubt is the duration of the crackdown. With hindsight, it began after Tibetan riots in 2008 drew a harsh response. Since then, two events, the Beijing Olympics later that year and the Shanghai World Expo of 2010, might have served as coming-out parties for a rising China. They offered the regime the chance to show the world a more confident face. Yet both were accompanied by harsh treatment of anyone deemed likely to embarrass the government. Tens of thousands of unwashed migrant workers were forced out of Beijing for lowering the tone. Outspoken activists were kept out of sight.
Even natural disasters have triggered repression. Mr Ai’s first serious run-in with the authorities came when he attempted to account for all the schoolchildren killed during the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, many as a result of corrupt building practices. Taking in all its manifestations, which include tightened internet censorship and a stifling of public debate, the latest crackdown on political dissent certainly constitutes the worst since Tiananmen Square in 1989 and its aftermath.
A third reason to doubt the notion of gradual warming lies in the method of repression. Even the post-Tiananmen crackdown had a semblance of due process. Now such pretence is out of the window. People are picked up under arbitrary detention rules and then made to disappear. Mr Ai has not been heard of since being bundled away. Violence is part of the mix. Mr Ai needed brain surgery in 2009 after being beaten up by goons. Foreign journalists are being harassed on a scale unseen since Tiananmen Square. Vaguely defined “state security” is used as a reason to round people up. For perceived “troublemakers” such as Mr Ai, the government says, “no law can protect them.”