Beijing’s War on Rights Lawyers and Activists Continues

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Originally published by The Wall Street Journal (blog) on January 23, 2016

A trio of recent repressive actions by the Chinese party-state represents a disturbing three-pronged attack that treats legality as an unnecessary burden on governance over society, and illustrates how far China is willing to go to snuff out dissent.

The actions include the arrest of seven lawyers accused of “subversion” and four others charged with lesser offenses; the televised “confession” of a China-based Swedish citizen who worked for a rights NGO and has been charged with “endangering state security;” and the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers and publishers One reemerged on CCTV to confess to a prior crime years earlier, and a second has written to his wife from Shenzhen to say that he has been “assisting in an investigation.”

Arrests for “subversion of state power”

The lawyers who have been arrested have all been in the forefront of defending controversial activists. Seven are accused of “subversion of state power,” an offense that has been on the books since 1997 but infrequently used. More commonly, activists such as Pu Zhiqiang have been convicted for the lesser charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels.” (Pu received a three-year sentence that was simultaneously suspended for the same length of time; however, because of his conviction, Pu is barred from practicing law.) Conviction for subversion can lead to a sentence of anywhere from three years to life in prison.

Three of the other lawyers were charged with the lesser offense of “inciting subversion against state power” which, according to a recent posting by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, is used against individuals who “express criticism of the government” and is punishable by a sentence of up to five years. One other person, a paralegal, has been charged with “assisting in destruction of evidence; other lawyers have been detained incommunicado or forcibly disappeared for at least six months.

The arrests raise the severity of the charges by aiming at speech related to “subversion” — rather than acts. Foreign experts are dismayed; Eva Pils (Kings College London) comments that the situation “is basically about as serious as it gets for human rights advocacy.”

The arrest of the human rights lawyers is a continuation of the crackdown that exploded in July, but the rise of the accusation of “subversion” raises the odds of harsher punishment.

Arrest and televised “confession” of Swedish citizen affiliated with a human rights NGO

A Swedish man in his 30s, Peter Dahlin, a co-founder of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) that organizes training programs for human rights defenders, was detained in early January, on a charge of “endangering state security.” On Wednesday, he was paraded on China Central Television and shown admitting to have broken Chinese laws, in a televised “confession” that has been denounced by rights advocates as coerced.

According to a statement from China Action, the NGO focuses on land law and administrative law and trains non-lawyers to provide pro-bono legal aid to victims of rights violations. Dahlin is in need of daily medication due to affliction by a rare disease; Chinese state media reports say he is receiving it, but no other information has been available. China’s Foreign Ministry says it is granting Swedish consular officials access to him, although no information has been available on his whereabouts.

This detention appears to be yet another response to activities by an NGO that are intended to provide assistance to victims of rights violations. The organization claims that it relies only on Chinese law to resist illegal conduct such as arbitrary detention and property demolition. One of Dahlin’s colleagues has since stated publicly that the group’s priority was “to empower Chinese citizens with legal knowledge” and that it was funded by grants from the European Union and embassies.

The Chinese party-state has been trying to control rampant violation of land rights, but why should an NGO be penalized for such a strategy? It is likely that the Chinese purpose is to send a very strong message to discourage foreign organizations that attempt to assist Chinese who strive to strengthen the rule of law.

Disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers

Four Hong Kong booksellers and publishers of books critical of CCP policies and President Xi Jinping disappeared from Hong Kong without any record of a legal transit. A fifth, Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen, left his home in Thailand and has just reappeared on CCTV to state that he had voluntarily returned to China after 11 years to confess to a fatal hit-and-run accident. The other four include Lee Bo, a British citizen. This week it emerged that Lee has written to his wife from the mainland, telling her that he went there voluntarily and is assisting “concerned parties” in an “investigation.”

Gui had published several books in Hong Kong about the private lives of Chinese leaders, and was supposedly preparingto publish another on President Xi Jinping’s love life. The book store that he co-owned has since closed.

Many questions have been raised about the missing men and China’s silence in response to foreign queries. If any of these five were abducted or otherwise forced to go to China, such actions would constitute violations of the 1997 agreement when the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong over to the PRC. This would represent a disconcerting willingness to ignore the obligation that China undertook at the time the colony’s handover took place to permit Hong Kong to have its own legal system as part of its exercise of a “high degree of autonomy.” The disappearances cast a dark shadow over freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

The crackdown on rights activism marks further erosion of Chinese legality

The problems discussed here are not isolated, but reflect a widening expansion of controls over all kinds of speech in China. A recent article on “The Decline of Independent Journalism in China” concludes that investigative reporting is “increasingly losing out to a format whose most prominent feature is sunny headlines about government work and the daily activities of Xi Jinping.” The current crackdown appears to be a continuation of relentless pressure by Beijing to expand its authoritarian rule, which makes any of its invocations of the rule of law a travesty.

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