China’s recent series of closed-door subversion trials and televised coerced confessions involving public interest lawyers and human rights activists marks a disturbing return of certain Maoist tactics designed to have a chilling effect on political dissent and legal advocacy, Fordham Law Professor Carl Minzner said during a recent interview.
The convictions of Zhou Shifeng, director of the Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, and three other activists earlier this month on charges that they conspired with foreigners against the state not only present a significant challenge to the rule of law in the world’s most populous nation but could foreshadow other political shifts that would undermine the relationship between the United States and China, Minzner observed.
“We’ve seen an escalation in tone with respects to lawyers,” Minzner said. “It would be easy to imagine the same rhetoric and actions ramped up in education and civil society more broadly, and this could be really disruptive for U.S.-China ties.”
From July to September 2015, Chinese authorities detained around 300 lawyers and activists connected to Fengrui Law Firm, known for litigating politically sensitive cases and representing clients either targeted or banned by the government. The majority of those detained were released within a day or two, but a small number were charged with subversion, a political crime related to organizing, plotting, or planning to subvert or overthrow the socialist system that carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Shifeng received a 7 ½ year sentence on August 4 after being accused of coming under the influence of “anti-China” forces and attempting to “manipulate public opinion and damage national security by spreading subversive thoughts,” according to a state media report on the verdict. Fellow public rights lawyer and activist Zhai Yanmin received a three-year suspended sentence.
Activist Wang Yu was released on bail this month after she appeared to confess in an online video. Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization, has questioned the validity of Yu’s confession. The rising number of coerced confessions since President Xi Jinping took power three years ago represents a troubling return to China’s past.
“Some of the tactics Beijing is currently using against public interest lawyers are reminiscent of ones used in the Maoist era, and that we thought had disappeared with the birth of the reform era in 1978,” Minzner said, referring to the broad economic and social changes the country launched two years after Mao Zedong’s death.
Throughout his tenure, Xi has linked public interest lawyers and human rights advocates with national security threats.
China’s current leadership has vowed not to let happen in its own country what occurred in 1989 in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, or more recently during the Arab Spring. Thus, the space for legal reform in which public interest lawyers achieved notable successes in the early 2000s has dramatically narrowed, Minzner explained. Many leading public interest lawyers have subsequently fled China for the United States.
“You compare today to 2003 and it’s a totally different world,” Minzner said, labeling 2016 as a “dark time” for China’s public interest lawyers.
More than a dozen attorneys and activists swept up in the July 2015 crackdown on Fengrui remain in pretrial detention without access to their families or legal counsel of their choosing.
“We urge Chinese authorities to release the lawyers and rights defenders who are imprisoned or in detention, including those already sentenced,” said Elizabeth Trudeau, director of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Public Relations, in a statement published on August 8. Trudeau also called for an end to their legal cases and any restrictions on their freedom or professional activities.
Chinese officials do not care what foreigners think of the recent subversion trials, Minzner said.
According to Minzner, the trials exist to silence public rights lawyers, signal to foreign organizations cooperating or funding human rights groups that there are political lines they cannot cross, and fan the flames of nationalism among Chinese people.
The trials also highlight a growing suspicion of Western ideas and organizations, Minzner noted, articulated in a law that goes into effect next year requiring more than 7,000 foreign nongovernment groups to find an official Chinese sponsor and register with police.