By DANG NIAN
Human Rights correspondent
BEIJING (China Daily Show) – A bygone era of veiled threats, house arrests and occasional beatings was wistfully conjured by a group of activists sharing a cell today in an unspecified location in West Beijing.
“Remember when Lawyer Gao disappeared over Spring Festival and it turned out he’d just been kept in a secure hotel room for six weeks? Man, those were the fat years,” said critic Peng Deming, recalling a period which saw over 800 Tibetan activists, writers, artists and intellectuals imprisoned for criticizing the regime.
China’s former president Hu Jintao is often perceived as an aloof and robotic figure, who failed to make any progress with political reform during his ten years as leader.
But Peng remembers differently. “Hu wasn’t that bad, actually, in hindsight,” Peng says. “I used to have a blog back then, for example.”
Many artists now consider the Hu administration – which lasted from 2002 to 2012, and included the SARS cover-up, melamine scandal and crackdown on victims of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake – as a golden age of academic freedom and free expression.
“It seems only yesterday I was campaigning about how Sichuan officials skimmed construction funds, causing schools to swiftly collapse and kill thousands of kids. I got my ears boxed and was told to keep my head down for six weeks!” reminisced artist Ai Weiwei. “So I caught up with my housework and watched a bunch of films. Ah, the good old days.”
Fondly shaking his head, human-rights lawyer Gao Long emphasized that the years which witnessed a massive military response to protests by Tibetan monks, leaving up to 400 dead and thousands arrested, would never be forgotten as benchmarks of enlightenment and liberal leadership.
“Hard to imagine really, but it was only a few years ago that my dear friend Liu Xiabao got a mere 11 years for circulating a written document challenging the government’s legitimacy!” Gao marveled. “Why, under our new president, the esteemed thinker Xi Jinping, scholar Ilham Tohti received a whole life sentence simply for promoting peace and understanding.
“Oh, what a magical time it was to be alive and criticizing President Hu.”
Critics aren’t the only ones waxing nostalgic about the freewheeling decade, in which blind lawyer Chen Guancheng was famously forced to flee illegal detention to the US Embassy in Beijing, triggering diplomatic crisis over human rights.
Many businessmen also become misty-eyed while discussing the period.
“Time was when a man could leave his house with a suitcase full of hard currency, have a banquet, then visit a nice brothel,” sighed housing developer Pan Shunyi, “and still have cash left over to pay for the limo-ride home with a local official. Those days are gone.”