East Asia Theater
Following the announcement that China's Communist Party has proposed scrapping term limits for the presidency, effectively setting Xi Jinping up as president for life, the online reaction within the People's Republic was initially voluble and irreverent. But authorities quickly cracked down, barring certain words and phrases from Sina Weibo search results. The absurd overkill in what was blocked betrays an obvious fear of the masses on the part of China's ruling elite. California-based China Digital Times of course informs us that the very titles of George Orwell's novels 1984 and Animal Farm have been suppressed. This is hardly surprising. It's almost heartening that despots around the world still find Orwell so dangerous that they have to ban him. But some other samples of the verboten verbiage are more revealing—and enigmatic.
Human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng was reportedly charged Jan. 27 with "inciting subversion of state officials" after writing a letter calling for reform to China's constitution. Yu was arrested outside his home in Beijing nearly two weeks ago for "disrupting a public service," just hours after he wrote an open letter urging democratic changes, including multi-party presidential election. His wife was summoned on Jan. 27, at which time she learned of the more serious incitement charge now against him. Authorities searched Yu's office and residence, and seized documents and data related to his more recent cases. Yu is reportedly being held under "Residential Surveillance in a Designated Location" (RSDL) and is out of communication with his family and attorney. Those held under RSDL can be detained for six months with no outside communication. In addition, the current charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
A court in China on Dec. 26 convicted a prominent online activist and a human rights lawyer on subversion charges, after holding them for two years. Activist Wu Gan, known on social media as "Super Vulgar Butcher," and lawyer Xie Yang, were arrested during the "Black Friday" or "709 Crackdown" on rights campaigners and their supporters in 2015. In separate trials, Wu was sentenced to eight years in prison—the harshest term yet for anyone targeted in the crackdown—while Xie was exempted from criminal punishment after pleading guilty to the charges. He was released on bail earlier this year. In its verdict, the Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People's Court said that Wu had attempted to overthrow China's system by conspiring with "illegal religious practitioners," "professional petitioners" and lawyers. The statement said Wu and his co-conspirators "use 'defending rights' and 'performance arts' as a disguise...to defame state institutions and attack the national system set by the constitution."
A rare protest is reported from Beijing Dec. 10, following the mass eviction of a squatter camp for migrant workers in the city's northeastern fringe. The incident, in Feijia village of Chaoyang district, near Beijing's airport, saw protesters hanging a hand-painted banner reading "Violation of Human Rights" across the front gate of the village committee office, while hundreds chanted "Forced eviction violates human rights." Clearing of the makeshift camp was seemingly part of a crackdown on informal dwellings following a fire in a tenement in nearby Daxing district last month in which 19 were killed. Tens of thousands have been left homeless in the clearances. Footage of the protest was captured on smart phones, resulting in coverage in the Wall Street Journal and Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
A Chinese court on Nov. 28 sentenced Taiwanese democracy activist Lee Ming-cheh to five years in prison on charges of attempting to "subvert state power." Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council immediately denounced the sentence as "unacceptable" and "politically motivated." Lee was sentenced alongside Chinese citizen Peng Yuhua by the Yueyang City Intermediate People's Court, in Hunan province. Peng was sentenced to seven years, also for "subverting state power." The convictions followed a trial in September 2017. Lee first went missing in March 2017 after crossing the border from Macao to Zhuhai, Guangdong, in southern China. Ten days later Chinese officials confirmed he was being held on suspicion of "endangering national security." The case concerned an Internet chat group Peng started in 2012. Prosecutors said the group attempted to foment a "Western color revolution."
The China Institute in New York City on Oct. 5 featured a discussion with Harvard scholar William C. Kirby, author of Can China Lead? Reaching the Limits of Power and Growth, on the question: "Can China Lead in the Age of De-Globalization?" Although he didn't state it explicitly, his answer appeared to be "no." Kirby began by echoing the prediction that as the 19th century saw Great Britain as the dominant world power, and the 20th saw the United States of America, the 21st could belong to China. But Kirby sees this succession as now threatened by the "destabilization of global norms" and the rise of "anti-globalist neo-authoritarian movements everywhere." He invoked the Brexit, the rise of Le Pen in France—and finally Donald Trump, who, Kirby noted, is rather obsessed with China.
Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido seems, unfortunately, poised to jump into the headlines as East Asia's next flashpoint for Great Power confrontation. When North Korea fired a missile over Japan last month, it was this northern island that the rocket passed over. Buried deep in the New York Times account of the incident is the fact that in addition to the routine annual US-South Korean military exercises then underway along the DMZ, "The United States has also been conducting joint exercises with Japanese forces for the past two weeks." And specifically (the Times didn't note) on Hokkaido. The Diplomat informs us that the exercises were dubbed Northern Viper and involved Japan Self-Defense Forces troops and US Marines operating out of Misawa Air Base, the northernmost US base in Japan, just across Tsugaru Strait from Hokkaido on the northern tip of Honshu. The USMC boasts that the exercises were unprecedented, marking the first joint US-Japanese maneuvers on Hokkaido.
As Donald Trump and and Kim Jong-un exchange nuclear threats, anti-missile protesters in rural South Korea scored a win, prompting Seoul to delay plans to expand the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery that the Pentagon installed in April. On Aug. 10, the South Korean government announced indefinite postponement of a study to measure levels of noise and electromagnetic pollution from the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system, responding to an ongoing protest campaign by local residents and activists. The ministries of National Defense and Environment planned to begin the survey in the village of Seongju, where the battery has been placed, on the same day the postponement was announced. The announcement came as villagers and activists were blocking the road to the THAAD base.