This week, Chinese authorities put on trial and convicted one rights lawyer and three activists on charges of “subversion of state power”: Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), a law firm employee; Hu Shigen (胡石根), a democracy and religious freedom activist; Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), a lawyer and law firm director; and Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), a rights activist. According to available official trial transcripts and media reports, all four defendants admitted guilt, expressed remorse, and accepted their trial verdicts. In addition, on August 1, Chinese authorities released a video of Wang Yu (王宇), another lawyer charged with “subversion” but recently released on bail, in which she referred to her former colleague Zhou Shifeng as not being a “qualified” lawyer,” and expressed remorse about her own “inappropriate” remarks and speaking with foreign media.
These five individuals are among the more than 300 lawyers and activists targeted in a nationwide crackdown that began in July 2015. To date, 18 others remain in police custody and have been formally arrested, five of whom are also facing “subversion” charges.
What do these events mean for Chinese civil society? How should the international community respond?
The targeting of those who are at the forefront of defending fundamental rights and promoting the growth of civil society underscores the true aim of the Communist Party of China’s policy of “ruling the country by law”—to maintain the supremacy of the CPC. Instead of safeguarding the people's rights, the current regime uses the legal system as a political instrument to undermine the very forces needed to sustain a rule of law: an independent judiciary, an independent bar, and a robust civil society.
“Instead of ‘putting power into the cage of law,’ as Xi Jinping proclaimed he would do when he first came to office, the Chinese regime is putting the people who lawfully challenge unchecked power into a cage,” said Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China. “And instead of solving social and political problems at their roots, the regime is attempting to root out the people who are trying to help solve these problems.”
Marking a further deterioration of the human rights situation in China, the persecution of rights lawyers and defenders over the past year, widely known as the “709 crackdown,” has spread a reign of terror throughout the rights defense community in China. It has not only subjected dozens of individuals to prolonged detention in isolation from any communication with their families, denied them access to legal counsel of their own choosing, and used defendants’ family members as bargaining chips, but has also brought back the tactics of the Cultural Revolution: enforced and publicized “confessions” and acceptance of punishment.
The persecution has also revealed a new model of control and punishment that aims at the wholesale deprivation of political rights and personal freedom. It is a model designed to destroy personal and professional reputations through the use of official smear campaigns, to create tension and division within the rights defense community by forcing individuals to denounce one another publicly, and to sever any “undesirable” ties between Chinese civil society groups and the international community by characterizing foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as hostile forces and by criminalizing cooperation with these NGOs.
These public attacks on foreign NGOs, which have in recent decades provided much needed support for the growing civil society in China, have become part of the regime’s official “anti-foreign” narrative. It is a narrative that claims Chinese exceptionalism and aims at undermining internationally-accepted principles, norms, and standards, as well as universal values enshrined in international law. The international community should not accept these relativist arguments invoked to justify violations of international human rights by the Chinese authorities.
We urge governments, NGOs, legal professionals, and academic communities to send independent observers to monitor the upcoming trials of lawyers and activists in China and to call out any procedural due process irregularities and rights violations. The international community can no longer afford to accept China’s version of “rule by law.” We must stand firm in the face of the erosion of core international principles and values that protect fundamental rights and human dignity of all people.
Subversion of state power
Inciting subversion of state power
Gathering a crowd to disturb public order
Picking quarrels and provoking trouble
Organizing people to secretly cross national borders