Politburo Paranoia in China

On 23 April, Andrés Gentry cited a depressing article (no longer online) on MSNBC that illustrates how fragile and paranoid China’s top political leaders seem to feel.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

The leadership’s interest in such a ragtag group reflects a deep insecurity about its grip on power. The party has delivered two decades of rapid growth, defying those who believe economic reform must lead to political liberalization. But it is struggling to manage rising social tension and popular discontent and remains especially wary of student activism, which sparked the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

So the party moved quickly to eliminate the New Youth Study Group. In doing so, it forced eight young people to consider how much they were willing to sacrifice for their beliefs — and for their friends.

This account is based on interviews with the four members of the study group who escaped arrest, relatives and friends of those imprisoned, and others who attended the group’s meetings, as well as documents presented in court in the case.

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