By Ji Dunhuang, published: January 28, 2016
A summary of the situation
After six months of “residential surveillance at a designated place” (in reality forced disappearance), the vast majority of the human rights lawyers and other activists who lost their freedom in the “July 9 incident” [16 in all] have been formally arrested by the Communist Party on charges of “subverting state power,” or “inciting subversion of state power.” Even after family members and defense lawyers finally found where they were being held, the authorities continued to refuse visits—on the one hand, they claimed that visitation would endanger national security, and on the other claimed that the detained individuals had engaged new lawyers, dismissing those hired by family. Further, only a very few family members have been allowed to go to the detention centers and deposit living expenses for the detained lawyers.
The precursor to “subversion” or “inciting subversion” was “counterrevolutionary crimes” — a crime of a political character, or political persecution. When the Communist Party was revising the Criminal Law, it was a tailor-made provision for human rights defenders, and dissidents who opposed the Party’s dictatorship. Often, it allows the criminalization of speech. Since the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping established his rule, the Communist Party has resorted to very little use of these sorts of politically-defined crimes to punish political activists or prisoners of conscience (with the exception of its imprisonment of activists around the June 4 incident, or the key figures who led or took part in organizing opposition parties in the 1990s). In particular after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, the authorities carefully combed through the Criminal Law to find some non-political crimes to hang on political dissidents: for instance, the crime of “disorderly behavior,” originally classified as “hooliganism,” or “illegal business operations,” which was adapted from the old crime of “speculation and profiteering.” They did this in an attempt to avoid creating heroes through political suppression.
Given that Xi Jinping’s rise to power has been characterized by an all-out assault on multiple fronts, we must remain open to the possibility that the Party could begin the widespread adoption of charges like subverting state power in order to frame and criminalize political dissidents.
Why Did the July 9 Incident Take Place?
The broad background to the mass arrests is the monopolization of power by Xi Jinping—he’s strengthening his personal rule, and rapidly carrying out Maoist-style social and political control. Whether it’s in adopting laws or enforcing them, the suppression of different voices and views is becoming more and more ruthless, making the human rights situation in China increasingly disastrous.
Specifically, in the process of providing legal services, the social impact of lawyers has steadily grown stronger. They’ve not only significantly advanced the connections and solidarity among different sectors of the public, but their sense of group identity, cooperation, and interactions are much greater than that of other professionals (for example, journalists). The Communist Party is always afraid that it’s rule will be threatened, and so it constantly creates new enemies to go out and attack, as a way of preserving its own internal cohesion. A group of human rights lawyers going from strength to strength was inevitably going to become a target.
Tempered through their experiences in trying to see China’s law put into effect, the number of defense lawyers in China who have taken to proactive resistance has constantly increased. They’re no longer content with finding political legitimacy and fairness in the laws of China: they’re looking at matters from the perspective of international human rights conventions, putting in a quandary the Chinese officials who are framing activists as political criminals or prisoners of conscience. Human rights lawyers have even proposed transforming the legal system, or even the political structure—this forms an obvious contrast to the cooperative model of simply acting as defense counsel, and thus effectively stabilizing the status quo.
The large-scale “mop-up” operation conducted against rights lawyers, the top group of the new “five black categories,” is simply a reflection of China’s increasing social contradictions.
The Character of the July 9 Arrests
1) It was led by the highest levels, and involved the joint mobilization of the security and propaganda apparatuses. It involved not only large-scale arrests, interrogations, and threats, but also the comprehensive vilification of lawyers and activists who were detained.
2) It involved broad use of “residential surveillance at a designated place,” which is actually forced disappearance, and includes the possibility of repeated re-applications of new six month terms. This coercive procedure involved the blatant violation and deprivation of the rights and freedoms of citizens.
3) Family members have been widely implicated, with an effective policy of guilt by association. The most typical case was the manner in which Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, was not only prevented from leaving China to study abroad, but also deprived of his personal freedom.
4) Chinese police crossed borders to brazenly carry out arrests: this includes the cases of Jiang Yefei, Dong Guangping, Gui Minhai (a Swedish citizen), and others whom the Thai military government has handed over to China, and includes the disappearances of the Hong Kong book-seller Lee Bo, among others.
5) There have been more use of cross-departmental special investigative teams, with even staff of the lawyer’s association and officials in the judiciary being put on the front lines of persecuting lawyers or morally condemning them.
6) The authorities have openly thwarted lawyers appointed by family members, depriving the right of the accused to choose their own legal representation, and increased such covert, obstructive activities. By doing this, they hope to frame the detained lawyers more easily. (The lawyers appointed by the state cannot truly defend the rights of the accused, but only play the role of “stability maintenance.”)
Civic Resistance in China and the Effect of Support from the International Community
China’s civil society has effected a staunch resistance to the government in this severe, trying time. Lawyers are currently pushing their own counterattack, proactively defending those charged by the government and revitalizing the group of human rights lawyers. The official attempts to frighten lawyers away through high-pressure tactics haven’t met with complete success, as other rights defenders in China persevere, increasingly fearless in the face of the red terror (the masses of people who came out to gather around the courthouse for the trial of Pu Zhiqiang is an example). At the same time, there’s the potential that some individuals in the Party will engage in passive resistance when carrying out the prosecution of lawyers swept up in the July 9 incident—or at least, that they won’t carry on with such arrogant triumph as was on display last July.
The attention, support, and continued pressure on the Chinese authorities is definitely needed to effectively stem the ambitions of some Party officials to engage in similar frenzied, large-scale human rights abuses.
International Community Has to Step Up Its Pressure on Chinese Authorities
The National Security Law, the Anti-terrorism Law, the Foreign NGO Management Law, the Cybersecurity Law, and the Criminal Law Amendment, among others, have suppressed to nearly nothing the pitifully few remaining rights of Chinese citizens. The peril of China descending into fascism has increased, and the country seems as though it’s on the precipice of a state of war. It’s likely that the “Firewalls,” both online and off, are only going to get thicker and higher.
In the face of all this, apart from Chinese citizens continuing to strive for their rights, the international community must also take proactive measures to try to turn the situation in China around, to limit the damage to the existing world order.
It cannot be put more emphatically: taking measures against the July 9 persecution is the most important thing that can be done right now. If this is done well, it will greatly boost the morale of China’s civil society, firm up the confidence of those defending human rights, and deter the inhuman regime officials carrying out violations.
Members of Chinese civil society, including rights lawyers, have made immense efforts thus far, and we are now at the critical stage. What we need now is much more support from the international community.
Ji Dunhuang (吉敦黄) is the alias of a prominent human rights lawyer in China.
 In mid-2012, a Chinese think tank belonging to the Ministry of State Security identified five categories of Chinese citizens as people who undermine China’s national security: human rights lawyers are the first category, the others being: unauthorized religious believers (this refers mainly to house churches), dissidents, internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups. A review of the pattern of China’s systematic crackdown on civil society since Xi Jinping took office shows that these are precisely the groups being targeted. The “Five Black Categories,” a relic of the Cultural Revolution, refer to “landowners, the well-to-dos, the counter-revolutionaries, the bad elements, and the rightists” (地富反坏右).
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, by Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.