My wife and I were in China, mainly Beijing, through February and March, so we had a chance to see how this movement tentatively built itself and was then quelled, at least for a while. One of the realities hardest to convey about modern China and Atlantic readers know that I certainly have tried over the years is how life there can be simultaneously so wide-OPEN and so tightly controlled. In most of the country and for most people’s pursuits, this Chinese Winter that followed an Arab Spring left life looking normal. The economy kept growing; farmers worried about their crops and students about their tests; engineers designed new high-speed rail lines. I was in China mainly to report on the country’s big high-tech ambitions, and there was absolutely nothing about my interviews or factory visits that was not business as usual.
Yet for those in China who defined their business as involving politics of any sort, the pressure was intense. First, in February, a large number of the country’s human-rights and public-interest lawyers yes, they exist were arrested or detained, or were disappeared, in the style of Pinochet’s Chile. Once they were gone, people they might have represented and defended—writers, professors, bloggers, activists of many sorts—were arrested or made to disappear too. The Nobel Committee expressed concern not just that the most recent recipient of the Peace Prize, the civil-rights activist Liu Xiaobo, was still imprisoned but that they had not heard anything from him for months. “Signs of tightening control have been visible for several years,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a human-rights official in Hong Kong, wrote in March. “But the authorities are now employing a range of new, illegal methods to silence their critics … Most terrifying of all is the way in which enforced disappearance appears to have become almost routine.”