The recent trial of lawyers, legal assistants and NGO personnel who were detained during mass arrests more than a year ago has given the clearest indication to date of whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping is honoring his oft-repeated commitments to rule by law with Chinese characteristics. On July 9, 2015, more than 300 weiquan (维权; rights-protecting) lawyers, legal staff and rights advocates were detained on charges ranging from “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” to “inciting subversion of state power.” International watchdogs considered the mass arrests, dubbed the “709 Incident,” the largest-scale action against socially committed attorneys and NGO enthusiasts since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In early August 2016, more than a year after their initial detention a handful of the 24 lawyers and their associates were finally put on trial in a Tianjin court. Moreover, 264 legal professionals and activists have remained under 24-hour police surveillance while 39 are not allowed to leave the country (VOA, July 23; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], July 6; Human Rights in China, June 10).
The legal professionals detained by police include nationally and globally recognized rights lawyers such as Zhou Shifeng, Wang Yu, Wang Quanzhang, Li Heping, Xie Yang, Li Chunfu, and Liu Sixin. Zhou and both Wangs were attorneys at the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm. Zhou Shifeng first gained recognition for representing underground Christians as well as the parents of the victims of melamine-tainted milk produced by unscrupulous dairy manufacturers. Wang Yu, who won the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize earlier this year, achieved national acclaim for defending human rights activist Cao Shunlin, who later died under suspicious circumstances while in police custody in 2014. She also represented renowned Uighur scholar and dissident Ilham Tohti. Wang Quanzhang, who is not related to Wang Yu, is a veteran counsel for persecuted Falun Gong practitioners. Li Heping is a Christian lawyer who has represented house church members and political dissidents. In 2008 he was awarded the Democracy Award for Religious Freedom given by the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (Hong Kong Free Press, August 4; BBC Chinese, August 2).
Due Process Suspended
Twenty international legal and human-rights NGOs signed a petition to Beijing asking President Xi to “uphold the rule of law” in handling 709 cases. Signatories included the Amsterdam Bar Association, the Australian branch of the International Association of People’s Lawyers and the International Commission of Jurists (AP, July 9). That these weiquan attorneys and activists were only put on trial 13 months after their arrest is only one among many violations of due process by the party-state apparatus. The spouses of the rights defenders were not told where they were held. The authorities also denied requests by relatives to hire lawyers for the accused. This was despite a petition signed by 60 attorneys nationwide asking the authorities to honor Chinese law by allowing the detained access to legal help. Moreover, several of the most prominent weiquan lawyers and advocates were forced to make so-called televised confession of guilt while they were subjected to interrogation by police. The confessions were then broadcast and publicized in Chinese and Hong Kong media. Yet the CCP leadership’s most controversial tactic is to play the “patriotic card” by insinuating that the rights defenders were under the influence of “hostile anti-China forces in the West,” usually a code name for the United States (VOAChinese.com, July 10; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], July 10; Chinadigitaltimes.com, January 7).
Sentencing for suspects willing to go on record denouncing the West for “spreading chaos” in China have been relatively light. During trials in the week beginning August 1, Zhou Shifeng was given a seven-year term for “subversion of state power.” While Zhou did make a televised confession shortly after his arrest in July last year, he did not accuse “hostile anti-China forces” of wreaking havoc in China. Zhou’s Feng Rui lawfirm associate Wang Yu, however, was granted bail, a lenient dispensation in the Chinese judicial system. Two other rights activists who had worked with Feng Rui lawyers were given jail terms. Hu Shigen, the pastor of a house church and a veteran dissident, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years for “subversion of state power.” Zhai Yanmin, who was also accused of the same crime, was given a suspended three-year sentence (BBC Chinese, August 4).
It turned out that the lenient treatment accorded Wang Yu and Chai Yanmin was due to their having made additional confessions in August that laid into “anti-China Western powers.” In an interview with selected media in China and Hong Kong, Wang asserted that “foreign organizations have interfered in human rights cases in China with the purpose of wreaking havoc on the country.” She claimed that lawyers at Feng Rui had received training in Britain, Sweden and Thailand on “ways and means to smear the Chinese government using human rights cases.” Referring to the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize award, Wang said: “I do not recognize and approve of such an award. As a Chinese citizen, I will never accept such an award.” Accusing other rights attorney of being the pawns of hostile forces in the West, Wang said: “I won’t be used by them anymore” (Radio Free Asia, August 1; Theinitium.com [Hong Kong], August 1). As for Zhai, who was accused by police of orchestrating demonstrations to protest cases of miscarriage of justice, he said in recent interviews with Chinese and Hong Kong media that he was now convinced that “hostile forces outside China and some people in China with ulterior motives” were trying to break up the country. From now on, he said, “I will not go down the road of crime while being blinded by words such as ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ or ‘the public good’” (Amnesty.org, August 4; South China Morning Post, August 2).
At the same time, a dozen odd state-owned media, including the micro-blogging networks of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Communist Youth League, ran a video accusing the United States of provided support to human rights lawyers as well as separatist movements in Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Entitled “If you want to change China, you need to first step over our bodies,” the five-minute feature showcased the conspiracy theory of the U.S. sowing dissension and internal unrest in a host of countries including Iraq, Libya and Egypt. While various Chinese media have accused the U.S. and other Western powers of providing aid to China’s NGOs, it was the first time that a link was made between China’s 400-odd rights attorneys and the U.S. government (Japan Times, August 7; Time (Asia), August 4; Chinachange.org, August 3).
The Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group pointed out that the televised confessions made by the lawyers were most likely made under duress. In Wang Yu’s case, the Group noted what while Wang was supposedly granted bail, neither her relatives nor colleagues could locate her. “Wang’s husband was also arrested for ‘inciting subversion of state power’,” said CHRLCG. “Her son and parents are under round-the-clock surveillance by the police in their homes in Inner Mongolia” (CHRLCG Statement, August 3) Eva Pils, a specialist in Chinese law at King’s College, London, said while the forced confessions of attorneys appeared concocted, Beijing hopes that ordinary citizens will buy the propaganda. “The fact that the statements they [rights attorneys] make are scripted and unconvincing—especially to those who knew them before they were ‘disappeared’—apparently doesn’t matter much from the authorities’ perspective,” Pils said. “They are presumably aiming at a broader audience of casual viewers meant to associate weiquan lawyers with troublemakers; and vilifying human rights advocates as manipulated by foreign enemy forces is part of that effort.” The legal expert said Beijing’s message was clear: “Lawyers are expected to help the Party-state, not oppose it by insisting on defending their clients’ human rights.” 
Beijing has also been using questionable—and legally dubious— methods to suppress another group of “trouble-makers”: journalists and intellectuals who are committed to universal values and truthful reporting. A case in point is the closure of one of China’s most influential political journal, Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋), which was run by the former associates of the Party’s liberal icons, former general secretaries Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Du Daozheng, former Director of the National Press and Publication Administration, was publisher of the monthly, while Hu Dehua, the son of late Party chief Hu, was Vice-Publisher. Perhaps due to its special background, the magazine, which had a circulation of 200,000, had been tolerated despite its advocacy of political reform and civil rights. And while it was “sponsored” by the Chinese National Academy of Arts (CNAA)—a unit of the Ministry of Culture—the agreement between Yanhuang Chunqiu and CNAA spelt out clearly that the journal had full say over issues such as personnel and finance (South China Morning Post, July 18; Ming Pao, July 18).
In mid-July, however, CNAA leaders told Yanhuang Chunqiu that it had sacked Du, Hu and other senior editors. Moreover, CNAA dispatched its own staff to occupy the magazine’s premises and to take over the operations of its computers and website. Du, 92, who told foreign media that the CNAA had violated the law, instructed Mo Shaoping, one of the best-known rights lawyers in Beijing, to sue the Association. That it is unlikely that the reformers will have their way, however, was demonstrated by the fact the Beijing court refused to accept the case. Moreover, new staff installed by the CNAA put out the August edition of the magazine despite protests made by Du and Hu that the editorial and writing teams of the original Yanhuang Chunqiu had nothing to do with the new, heavily censored product (Apple Daily, August 5; Radio French International, July 22).
In light of President Xi’s on-going power struggle with factions in the Party such as the Shanghai Faction led by former president Jiang Zemin as well as the free-thinking associates of liberal icon Hu Yaobang, it is understood that the closure of Yanhuang Chunqiu was Xi’s signal that a wider purge of officials and intellectuals might be in the offing. Historian Zhang Lifan said while Party elders close to the liberal wing of the CCP wanted to use the Yanhuang Chunqiu to help the Party and country, the regime did not want to heed their advice. “They want to save the Party, but the party doesn’t want to be helped,” he said. “When you’re mighty and powerful, you don’t need people to nag you” (The Diplomat, July 19). Zhang and other commentators, however, have deplored the illegal means by which Party censors had taken over the much-admired journal. Ousted publisher Du even compared the authorities’ crackdown on Yanhuang Chunqiu to the “lawlessness of the Cultural Revolution” (New York Times Chinese Edition, July 20; Radio Free Asia, July 18).
At a CCP Central Committee plenary session held in Beijing two years ago, President Xi vowed that he would respect the Constitution and the law. The Party chief reiterated that “no organization or individual can act outside the parameters of the law.” According to the “Decision on major issues concerning comprehensively advancing rule of law” passed at the plenum, judicial independence would be guaranteed. Officials would be given demerits or held accountable if they are found interfering in judicial cases. “Officials will be criticized in public notices if they influence judicial activities or meddle in a particular case,” the document added. “Judicial injustice can inflict a lethal damage to social justice,” it said (Xinhua, October 24, 2014; People’s Daily, August 29, 2014). Beijing’s handling of the human rights lawyers, NGO activists and liberal editors, however, has proven that the CCP is determined to use its quasi-police state apparatus and propaganda machinery to prop up the authority of the Party—and “core” leader Xi Jinping—at all costs.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping: Renaissance, Reform, or Retrogression?,” which is available for purchase.
1. Author’s interview with Dr. Pils, August 10