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China cracks down on dissidents ahead of major party conference Add to ...

As the elites of China's ruling Communist Party prepare to gather at Beijing's Great Hall of the People for a key meeting - one that could feature a groundbreaking internal debate on the need for political reform - a crackdown has escalated on those few who dare disagree with the party in public.

The founder of the Tiananmen Mothers group, Ding Zilin, and her husband, Jiang Peikun, disappeared from their Beijing home Thursday and her mobile phone was apparently disabled. The Tiananmen Mothers are among the most outspoken critics of Communist Party rule, having battled for two decades to make the government accountable for the deadly military assault that ended student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in June, 1989.

News of Ms. Ding's apparent detention was announced by Liu Xia, wife of jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, via her Twitter account. "Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, the two teachers, have also disappeared. Please pay attention," Ms. Liu wrote in an apparent warning to her fellow dissidents. She herself has been under house arrest and prevented from using her mobile phone since shortly after her husband's award was announced last week.

Outspoken author and religious activist Yu Jie told The Globe and Mail that he also had been placed under effective house arrest upon returning to China on Thursday from the United States. "When I arrived home, I was notified at the police station that I must take a police car to go out anywhere," he said in a text message.

The squeezing of dissidents seems tied to the four-day annual meeting of the 200-plus members of the Communist Party's powerful Central Committee, which opens Friday. The detentions hint at nervousness within the party's leadership, which is under unusual internal and external pressure to reform the country's repressive political system.

While normally tightly scripted affairs, past Central Committee plenums have nonetheless provided the backdrop for dramatic events. The eighth such meeting, held in 1959 during the height of the disastrous Great Leap Forward, was marked by a failed move to oppose the policies of Mao Zedong, resulting in the strengthening of his rule. Deng Xiaoping, who would later launch China's economic reforms and its opening to the outside world, rose to power via the 1978 plenum.

The latest crackdown on the party's domestic opponents began last week, as soon as it was announced that Mr. Liu had won the Peace Prize. (The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised both Mr. Liu's promotion of non-violence among the students on Tiananmen in 1989 and his role as a lead drafter of Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto. The 54-year-old was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion.") The pressure on the government nonetheless grew on Wednesday, when a group of 23 former Communist officials signed their name to an open letter calling for political reform and freedom of expression. The lead author of the open letter said he was trying to lend support to Premier Wen Jiabao, who has spoken repeatedly of the need for political reforms in recent weeks.

Mr. Wen has warned that the economic reforms that Mr. Deng introduced, and which have propelled China's subsequent economic growth, could fail if they aren't soon accompanied by changes to the political system. Some of his strongest remarks on the topic have been censored, however, leading to speculation of a split within the nine-member Politburo.

Political reform isn't on the official agenda of the Central Committee meeting, which is instead supposed to focus on finalizing a five-year economic plan that is expected to set annual growth targets for 2011-2015. It's also anticipated that Vice-President Xi Jinping will be named to the country's Central Military Commission, the last step in securing his power base before he is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao upon the latter's retirement in 2012.

But some official sources have hinted that the plenum's real legacy might be one of political reform. An article distributed by the official Xinhua newswire this week quoted Yu Keping, an adviser to Mr. Hu, who suggested that the 2010 plenum might launch "a third 30 years of reform," following the 1949 Communist Revolution and Mr. Deng's economic reforms of the 1980s. "After the reforms in economic field, the major reform work might now be mainly happening is the social and political fields," the article said.

A strong hint, but only that. And plenty of evidence to the contrary: the article was posted on Xinhua's website on Tuesday. It disappeared the following day.

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