Rule by Law or Power? Lawyer’s Conviction Stirs Online Debate in China

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Originally published by Voice of America on September 23, 2016

A harsh 12-year sentence handed down Thursday by a Chinese court against prominent civil rights lawyer Xia Lin is stirring a heated debate online about the rule of law in China, and whether the case shows an abuse of legal procedure.

Xia, whose clients included dissident artist Ai Weiwei, was found guilty of defrauding several people out of at least 10 million yuan ($1.5 million) to pay off gambling debts. He is the latest of several rights activists, particularly defense lawyers, to be sentenced under the administration of President Xi Jinping, who has justified the crackdown on civil society as part of a broader campaign to boost security and stability.

Many netizens vented their frustration on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, over what they consider fabricated charges by the Beijing court against Xia. “The disgusting ruling lays bare the true meaning of so called ‘rule of law,’” wrote a Wei user who posted under the name What Happens to the Society, while another user commented, “guilty or not, the authorities have the final say, nothing to do with law.”

Rule of law?

Under one Weibo posting, at least ten users responded with the same comment, “he who sets his mind to beat his dog will easily find his stick,” to satirize the country’s police state apparatus.

Another user lamented that the country’s prosecutors should have been more aggressive in pursuing real fraudsters.

Prior to Thursday’s ruling, a group of seven legal experts, including law professors He Weifang of Peking University and Tong Zongjin of Chinese University of Political Science and Law, had strongly argued against Xia’s alleged fraud charges.

In a written statement submitted in June, they petitioned that Xia’s private debt issues with four acquaintances posed no danger to society and thus, China’s criminal law isn’t applicable. In other words, they argued, civil procedure is only lawful if any of Xia’s creditors have filed a lawsuit against him. Yet, the court found Xia guilty of fraud on Thursday and handed him a 12-year jail term, in lieu of any complaints from his creditors.

Unlawful criminal procedure

According to Xia’s counselor Wang Zhenyu, only two of four loans Xia owed to his creditors were overdue by 22 days and three months respectively before he was arrested in November 2014.

At that time, his creditors had also agreed to grant a payment extension, having faith in Xia’s ability to repay debts, Wang said, adding that Xia has decided to appeal.

His creditors’ rights are now completely comprised after the court ruled to put Xia behind bars, which will completely deprive him of chances to work and repay his debts.

Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University of China, also found Xia’s verdict mistaken, but with a political message. “This is a case without victims. No one has ever sued him. Taking a loan isn’t a scam,” Zhang said.

“The verdict aims to send a warning to dissidents: don’t fail to submit to me [the authorities]. The [verdict] is in serious defiance of law and it has become a political persecution,” he added.

The professor, however, is pessimistic that any appeal will succeed in overturning the verdict.

Rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was given a suspended jail sentence, also called the verdict “political retaliation.”

Equally pessimistic, Su Tienfu, lead pastor of Huoshi Church, the largest unregistered church in Guiyang, Guizhou province, said the recent crackdown on rights defenders has proved repeatedly that China is on the opposite path of the government’s oft-repeated commitments to rule by law.

True rule of power

“[It’s] rule of power. The talk of rule by law [in China] is nothing but a joke. We’re still ruled by power. Those in power have the final say. If they say we’re guilty, they will find ways to incriminate us, even if they have to pull ridiculous and groundless evidence,” Su said.

Su said he understands what it is like to be wronged as he faces a possible indictment soon simply because he forwarded a prayer to his WeChat friends in December. The prayer was found to have attached an international media report on the government’s classified documents, detailing its approaches toward shutting down family churches.

Four of Su’s colleagues have been kept in detention in December after authorities shut down their family church.

Many rights groups have denounced the Chinese authorities’ persecution of Xia and demanded his immediate release.

In a statement released Friday, the rights group Chinese Human Rights Defenders called on the international legal community, rights groups and governments to join forces and exert pressure on the Chinese government to release all imprisoned lawyers in China, including Xia.

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