China Sentences Human-Rights Activists to Prison for Subversion

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China Sentences Human-Rights Activists to Prison for Subversion

By Keith Zhai and Sha Hua

Originally published by THE WALL STREET JOURNAL on Apr. 10, 2023

Harsh punishments for legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and lawyer Ding Jiaxi punctuate fading of liberal aspirations in the country

In sentencing Xu Zhiyong, left, and Ding Jiaxi, the Chinese government is silencing two of the most influential critics of its approach to law.PHOTO: HANDOUT/REUTERS

SINGAPORE—A Chinese court sentenced two of the country’s most prominent human-rights activists to prison terms of more than a decade each for subversion, slamming the door on an era of activism that briefly carved out space for liberal values in the authoritarian country.

Xu Zhiyong was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fellow lawyer Ding Jiaxi was sentenced to 12 years on Monday by the Linshu County Court in eastern China’s Shandong province, said Mr. Ding’s wife, Luo Shengchun, citing information from their lawyers. Messrs. Xu and Ding had earlier been found guilty in a secret trial in Linshu in June, she said.

No further information about the ruling was available as the lawyers were prohibited by authorities from speaking with her over the phone, according to Ms. Luo.

“The government is putting the most intelligent, brave, and passionate people in jail,” she said.  

Both men were widely expected to spend time in prison, given China’s unusually high conviction rate and a continuing crackdown on political activists waged by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Still, their punishment was unusually heavy, according to human-rights experts. 

“I’ve been observing the Chinese criminal justice system for well over twenty years, and this is one of the harshest sentences we’ve ever seen,” said William Nee, a researcher with the Washington-based nonprofit group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The Linshu court didn’t answer multiple calls on Monday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a regular press briefing on Monday that he wasn’t aware of the case, but that everyone in China is equal before the law and its legal institutions ensure protection of individual rights.

In sentencing Messrs. Xu and Ding, the Chinese government is silencing two of the most influential critics of its approach to law and delivering a severe blow to a human-rights movement that achieved flashes of success before being targeted in Mr. Xi’s campaign to wipe out ideological threats to the party’s rule.

Mr. Xu, 50  years old, first attracted national attention in China in 2003, when he led a surprising campaign to abolish a system known as custody and repatriation that local police used as cover to abuse and exploit migrant workers. Later that year, he won election to the local legislature as an independent candidate, a rare feat lauded at the time by official media.

In 2010, he teamed up with Mr. Ding, now 55, and others to launch the New Citizens Movement, a loosely organized group of activists, lawyers and liberal business elites who advocated for government transparency, rule of law and equal access to education. After Mr. Xi came to power two years later, the group used the new leader’s campaign against corruption to justify street protests demanding officials disclose their sources of income. 

Both men were detained in 2013 and sentenced to prison the next year for disturbing public order—Mr. Xu for four years, Mr. Ding for 3½—in the first of a wave of crackdowns on advocates of liberal Western values. A second wave in 2015 resulted in more than 200 lawyers and activists disappearing into state custody, with several still missing. 

In late 2019, the two men organized an informal dinner gathering with around 20 fellow activists in a karaoke room in the coastal town of Xiamen to discuss human rights, current affairs and citizen activism, according to Ms. Luo and human-rights advocacy groups. Mr. Ding was detained shortly after in the city of Yantai, in Shandong province. 

After Mr. Ding’s detention, Mr. Xu went into hiding. He was apprehended in the southern city of Guangzhou in February of 2020, days after he published an open letter to Mr. Xi that mocked the Chinese leader’s vision, skewered his policies and called for him to step down. 

“Your lack of confidence means that everywhere you look you see threats,” Mr. Xu wrote, accusing Mr. Xi of swimming against the tide of history. “Autocracy encourages sycophants to crowd around the Emperor, but this particular Emperor’s new clothes are on full display for all to see.”

In an earlier interview, Ms. Luo said both men told their lawyers they had been subjected to sleep deprivation and interrogation sessions lasting hours while in detention. Such allegations are common among those detained in China on charges related to state security. 

Human Rights Watch criticized the closed-door trials, which it said were riddled with procedural problems and allegations of mistreatment. 

Protesters in Taipei called for the Chinese government to release human-rights activists including Messrs. Xu and Ding during a demonstration earlier this year.PHOTO: WIKTOR DABKOWSKI/ZUMA PRESS

“The cruelly farcical convictions and sentences meted out to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi show President Xi Jinping’s unstinting hostility towards peaceful activism,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The crime of inciting subversion usually carries a penalty of up to five years in prison in China, with longer sentences possible in cases considered severe. The length of the sentences handed down to Messrs. Xu and Ding exceed the 11-year sentence for subversion imposed in 2009 on the late Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer while still in custody.

Mr. Xu’s partner, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based women’s rights and labor activist, has been detained since February 2021 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power” and is awaiting trial.

The harshest punishment for dissent handed out under Mr. Xi was a life sentence for inciting ethnic hatred given to Uyghur economist and ethnic-rights activist Ilham Tohti in 2014. Outspoken Chinese businessman Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison for corruption in 2020 after he publicly described Mr. Xi as “a clown.”

Mr. Xu often warned in his writings that the Communist Party’s preoccupation with security and stability—including its proclivity for imprisoning critics—would eventually come back to haunt it. 

“People who go for years without having had a cold can readily fall prey to a fatal illness,” he wrote in his open letter to Mr. Xi in 2020. “A system that appears to be ultra-stable and is incapable of accommodating change can, when it eventually succumbs, find itself to be beyond treatment and end up digging its own grave.”

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