At the first day of the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing yesterday, China's leaders spoke of the importance of frank discussion for solving disputes.  But a number of reports this week highlight the sorry state of frank discussion within the country itself.

Prominent Tibetan rights activist Tsering Woeser and her liberal-intellectual husband Wang Lixiong were placed under house arrest in Beijing on Tuesday. In a Facebook post, Woeser said the reason for their detention was likely a phone call inviting her to the US embassy to meet with US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to the capital.

Woeser and Wang are by no means extremists, nor do they advocate for Tibetan independence. Woeser has riled the Government by openly writing about the dark chapters of Tibet's history, such as the Cultural Revolution in Lhasa, and by documenting the suicide notes left by the region's self-immolators. Wang advocates reforming minority rights in the region to afford greater protection to Tibetan culture and language.

Also on Tuesday, official news agency Xinhua revealed new guidelines issued by the country's media regulator that prohibit journalists from reporting or blogging on state secrets, commercial secrets, 'or information which has not yet been made public.' It was not immediately clear what the latter phrase meant, though 'revealing state secrets' is a catch-all crime in China that has been used to bring troublemakers to trial before.

The guidelines are the latest move by the Government under President Xi Jinping to tighten restrictions on journalistic freedom, both in traditional media and online. In June the media regulator announced new rules forbidding journalists from publishing reports critical of the Government without employer approval. The rules also ban journalists from setting up their own websites and conducting interviews or writing reports outside their assigned field of coverage.

Frank discussion within the Communist Party itself was also under fire this week. State media reported Yao Zengke, a deputy head of the anti-graft Supervision Ministry, as saying in an online chat with netizens that China should learn from the lessons of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which 'let its members publicly express views different to those of the organization.' Such members, Yao said, 'became megaphones for the spread of Western ideology.' A lack of Party ideological discipline is often cited by Party leaders and academics as one main reason for the dissolution of the Union.

Discouraging as this week's clampdowns are, they were not entirely unpredictable. Back in August 2013 an internal memo called on the Party to engage in a 'fierce struggle against seven political perils', which included the discussion of non-official history, constitutional democracy, universal values and 'the West's view of journalism.' All subsequent measures to restrict dissenting opinion make sad sense.

During his meetings with senior Chinese officials on Wednesday, John Kerry 'described his perception of a trend in China, with an increase in arrests and an increase in harassment of individuals who are expressing political views'. Kerry is right, of course. But all he's doing is pointing out official Chinese policy. 

Photo courtesy of the US State Department.