Trial of two Chinese activists held since 2021 begins in secret in Guangzhou

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Trial of two Chinese activists held since 2021 begins in secret in Guangzhou

By Amy Hawkins

Originally published by The Guardian on Sep. 22, 2023

Huang Xueqin, a feminist who was due to move to UK, and Wang Jianbing charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’

Huang was previously reported to be in poor health, but her situation is thought to have improved more recently. Photograph: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

The trial of two prominent activists detained since 2021 has begun in secret in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, in a case that has attracted widespread attention to Beijing’s repression of civil society.

Huang Xueqin, a feminist activist and journalist who covered China’s #MeToo movement, and Wang Jianbing, a labour rights activist, were detained in Guangzhou in September 2021, shortly before Huang was due to move to the UK to study at the University of Sussex. The pair were charged with “inciting subversion of state power” the following month. The charge normally carries a sentence of up to five years, although terms can be longer in cases deemed severe.

The roads around the courthouses appeared to be closed to public access, supporters said on Friday morning.

The pair have been held largely incommunicado. Advocates say they have been subjected to secret interrogations, torture and ill-treatment. In the weeks after their detention, Guangzhou police interrogated nearly 70 of their acquaintances, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a US-based human rights NGO. Several of those people were later forced to leave Guangzhou.

In the year leading up to their arrest, Huang and Wang had organised weekly meetings at Wang’s apartment in Guangzhou for like-minded progressives, to discuss issues such as feminism, LGBTQ+ rights and labour issues, but also to watch films and play board games. A friend of the pair who regularly attended said: “They were trying to rebuild a network, to bring together every isolated individual.” Wang was a “tea addict” and he and Huang would prepare a spread of drinks and snacks for the casual meetings. “We never thought that this was dangerous, or even offensive to the government,” said the friend.

Wang Jianbing. Photograph: AP

As well as China’s #MeToo movement, Huang covered the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as a journalist. Reflecting on reporting on the 2019 protests, Huang wrote: “Of course I understand the risks of pursuing freedom, and right now I am paying the price of being away from my loved ones back home.” Huang was later detained in Guangzhou and prevented from taking up a place on a postgraduate programme at the University of Hong Kong.

After being released in January 2020, Huang gained a certain cachet among activists in Guangzhou, who sometimes saw imprisonment as a badge of honour, said Mako, a friend of Huang’s, who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity. Huang was “appalled” by that attitude. “She didn’t think that she was superior just because she has been detained. Somehow she became even more down to earth, even more humble,” said Mako, who also attended the weekly meetings.

In June 2021, the British Foreign Office awarded Huang a Chevening scholarship, through a scheme which supports “outstanding emerging leaders from all over the world”. Huang was due to start a master’s degree in at the University of Sussex that autumn.

A spokesperson for the university said: “The University of Sussex community remains deeply concerned about Sophia Huang Xueqin, her safety and her wellbeing.

“We have consistently raised her case in meetings with the UK government and in correspondence with the British embassy in China.”

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: “We have directly raised our concerns on this case with the Chinese authorities on several occasions. Nobody should be arrested and put on trial for exercising their fundamental rights. British diplomats will seek to attend the trial.”

Representatives of seven consulates including the US attempted to attend the trial on Friday, but were not allowed into the courthouse.

William Nee, a researcher at CHRD, said that the Chinese authorities were often “very reluctant” to let people such as Huang go abroad. “If they’re abroad they can speak freely, they can connect with others and pose a threat to the regime.”

On Tuesday, Huang and Wang saw each other for what is believed to be the first time since they were detained, at a pre-trial meeting.

The pair are being held in Guangzhou number one detention centre. The prison did not respond to calls from the Guardian. Guangzhou’s public security bureau could not be reached for comment.

Huang was previously reported to be in poor health, having lost a significant amount of weight, although her situation is thought to have improved more recently.

In April 2022, Huang fired the lawyer that her family had appointed to represent her. She signed a letter dismissing Wan Miaoyan, a Chengdu-based lawyer who has known her for several years. In other cases, the Chinese authorities have been known to force detained people to dismiss their chosen counsel. But Wan has since managed to be reappointed. She declined to be interviewed but told the Guardian: “As her lawyer, I will do my best as any lawyer could do.”

On Thursday, 32 civil society groups, including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, published a joint statement calling for the “immediate and unconditional” release of Huang and Wang.

Additional reporting by Tzu-Wei Liu

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