BEIJING — Last year, Yu Jie was a bold man. He wrote a book criticizing, even mocking, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's reputation for being a kindhearted reformer as a shallow act for an authoritarian regime.
Yu then continued to ignore the warnings from state security and gave interviews to Western reporters in which he criticized the government.
But times have changed. Reached by phone this week, Yu said that he couldn't talk to the press. His reply to a subsequent text message made things clear: "Right now I cannot accept any kind of visits" — presumably from foreign press — "or else there could be danger to the life and safety of myself and my family."
As Vice President Joe Biden meets with Chinese leadership this week, he'll do so in a country that for the most part has silenced the few remaining dissident voices in a particularly harsh clampdown this year.
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It's not yet clear how forcefully the vice president or his staff plan to raise the subject of human rights in China during his four-day trip. Biden likely will have to balance any stern words to Chinese officials with assurances that China's $1.1 trillion-plus in U.S. Treasury securities is safe after Standard & Poor's recent downgrade of America's credit rating.
During a briefing with reporters after Biden's first day of talks on Thursday, a senior U.S. administration official said that "the vice president did raise the question of human rights and our concerns. And he noted the concern that the American people have about these issues."
A second senior administration official added that Biden had voiced "the conviction that respect for human rights and the ability of citizens to freely exercise their rights is a key component to a resilient, thriving and stable society."
Neither official, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the Chinese reaction to those points. During Biden's opening remarks with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, which did not include reference to human rights, American reporters were shoved toward the exit by Chinese minders who apparently felt Biden had talked for too long, according to a pool report.
Human rights groups say the past year in China has been among the harshest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
After calls for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China surfaced on the Internet in February — which went unnoticed by most Chinese and led to no protests of any size — security agencies increased harassment and arrested dozens of lawyers and dissidents.
Li Heping, a human rights lawyer, described the months that followed as "a time of 'black hoods' in Beijing — many people were taken away."
Li said that from February to last month, a contingent of men followed him everywhere and at times did not let him leave his house. Asked what stories he'd heard about other lawyers' treatment, Li said, "There are things I cannot say on the phone — you know how the system works in China."
While one prominent activist, Hu Jia, was released from prison in June after serving three and a half years in prison, others have simply vanished from public view or remain under extrajudicial confinement.
Gao Zhisheng, a crusading rights lawyer, was reportedly taken by police in February 2009 and didn't reappear until March 2010. A few weeks later, he disappeared again. The Associated Press later published an interview from his brief resurfacing in which Gao said he'd been beaten badly by Chinese police during his detention. Gao's whereabouts currently are unknown.
Wu Wei, an activist writer in the southern city of Guangzhou who was hauled off by police in February and held until late May, said, "They don't want the people they kidnapped to speak with the outside world. They're afraid it could start more trouble."
Wu, who writes under the name Ye Du, said that during his first 10 days at a police training facility he was kept awake for 23 hours a day and interrogated almost constantly. Since being released, Wu said, he's not been allowed to leave his home.
While police have forbidden him from speaking to the media, Wu said he spoke to McClatchy this week because "when we are under pressure, we have to bow our heads, but at some point we have to speak up."
Like Yu Jie, Wu is a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a writers' association that's linked to the international PEN free speech advocacy network. A former president of the Chinese PEN group, Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year while sitting in a Chinese prison on an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power.
After the prize was announced in October, Liu's wife, Liu Xia, soon was placed under de facto house arrest without any obvious legal procedures and was kept from communicating with the media. More than nine months later, those conditions appear to remain in place.
"Liu Xia has committed no crime," said Mo Shaoping, a Beijing rights lawyer whose firm represented Liu Xiaobo. "It's illegal for them to have her under home surveillance in this way."
Mo said that he's also faced harassment. The authorities have made it difficult for him to renew his annual legal license, searched his tax records and forbade him from meeting with Western rights advocates, he said.
"The biggest problem," Mo said, "is that the government is not following the laws that the government itself made."
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