Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence: A New Year Statement by The China Human Rights Lawyers Group

The China Human Rights Lawyers Group, January 1, 2021

The year of 2020 has seen a coronavirus pandemic rage across the globe, infecting 78 million and causing 1.75 million deaths by year’s end. The pandemic, spawned in Wuhan, is in fact an inevitable consequence of the long-running deterioration of human rights in China. The harsher suppression of free speech and press freedom over the last ten or more years meant that in the early days of the pandemic, expert views and whistleblower warnings were dismissed and slandered as rumormongering, allowing authorities to obscure the real situation. One can be sure that, if the authorities had been open to the public from the beginning, the epidemic would not have spread so far and the effects would not have been so devastating.

Once the coronavirus had spread widely and ordinary measures were no longer enough to handle it, local governments across the country employed drastic measures, using the pandemic as a rationale to lock down whole communities, restrict citizens’ movements, crack down on citizen journalists, forcibly enter private homes, disregard personal privacy, and generally show no regard for citizens’ fundamental dignity. In so many ways, it feels like a poisonous return of the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, as the human rights situation worsens.         

Nonetheless, at the heart of the outbreak in Wuhan, ordinary citizens like Zhang Zhan (张展), Chen Qiushi (陈秋实), Fang Bin (方斌), and Li Zehua (李泽华) resolved to exercise their freedom of speech, becoming heroes who truthfully reported the situation there. As usual, the authorities worked to suppress them, either “disappearing” them or forcing them into silence. In the case of Zhang Zhan, a lawyer practicing in Shanghai, the city’s police rushed to faraway Wuhan to illegally detain her, then later indicted her on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a “blanket charge” that is applied gratuitously to silence dissent. The truth is, it was not Zhang Zhan, citizen and lawyer, who “provoked trouble,” but the authorities that have resorted to cruel and unusual punishment, thus provoking trouble against Zhang Zhan, and put her on trial and sentenced her to four years in prison on December 28.

As the saying goes, “A man who wants to beat his dog will never be afraid of finding a stick.”

During this year of pandemic, digital totalitarianism in China has only become worse. Censorship, blocking, content deletion, account suspensions, police summonses, distortion, and outright framing are all part and parcel of how big data-driven controls have worked in a seamless and streamlined manner to thoroughly eliminate space for free expression in China. On social media platforms, words like “constitutional democracy,” “rule of law,” “government,” “democracy,” “freedom,” and “totalitarianism” are censored as sensitive words, so that Chinese netizens have to resort to homophones or segmenting the characters to evade censorship. As a result, the expressiveness and communicativeness of the Chinese language are castrated by this crude, big data-driven censorship. Earlier this year, in order to save one article titled “The Whistleblowers,” netizens fought back with wit and courage, ultimately creating some 40 versions of the article in various languages and forms. In the true mantra of Mao’s China, the censorship and historical revisionism seen in “1984” have once again made a comeback in China. We must take note of the internet giants who have collaborated with this censorship: the WeChats, the Tencents, the Pony Mas….

In 2020, the movement by judicial authorities to further suppress lawyers and law firms has not abated: Attorney Yu Wensheng (余文生) was sentenced to four years imprisonment, Li Yuhan (李昱函), a lawyer in her 60’s, was detained for a prolonged period, detained lawyer Chen Jiahong (陈家鸿) was forced to dismiss lawyers of his own choosing, Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) was stripped of the right to file suit, and both Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) and Chang Weiping (常玮平) were subjected to inhuman torture. Reliable sources state that Ding Jiaxi fainted multiple times while held in “residential surveillance at a designated location.” The illegal disbarring of Xie Yang (谢阳), Wang Yu (王宇), and Peng Yonghe (彭永和) further confirms the untrustworthy nature of the authorities and their penchant for retroactive punishment. Even more ridiculous is that an ordinary gathering in Xiamen caused many lawyers from across the country to be issued summons by the Guobao (国保, China’s domestic security police). The straits that lawyers face is plain for all to see, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they have been among the primary targets of China’s crusade against human rights.

This year, the government continued its wanton suppression of conscience-driven people and human rights supporters. Xu Zhiyong (许志永) and Li Qiaochu (李翘楚) were subject to residential surveillance at a designated location (RSDL), and Li was also humiliated and threatened by police. Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), once lauded as a “top 10 young jurist,” was accused of soliciting prostitutes, a move by the Guobao that led to widespread condemnation. Public interest lawyer Hao Jinsong (郝劲松) was sentenced, poet Wang Zang (王藏) and his wife were arrested, artist Liu Jinxing (刘进兴, aka Zhui Hun) and others were falsely accused, Cai Wei (蔡伟), Chen Mei (陈玫), and others were framed, vaccine safety advocate He Fangmei (何方美) was disappeared, “ink girl” Dong Qiongyao (董琼瑶) was again silenced, and rights activist Ou Biaofeng (欧彪峰) was detained for inciting state subversion just for disclosing information about Dong Qiongyao. All of these show that China is still a dictatorship maintained by brutal force, far from a country governed by the rule of law, that is, one where law and reason govern.

This year has seen secret trials appearing in its “legal” overcoat. The police, procuratorates, and courts have turned the epidemic into an excuse to use various tricks to deprive defendants of the right to see their lawyers and of citizens to observe hearings, and to forcibly assign government-designated lawyers to defendants, turning the courtroom into a spectacle and trampling on the principle of fair and open trial.

The judicial system is a dark place, and the truth of it is unbearable: Cheng Yuan (程渊), Liu Dazhi (刘大志), and Wuge Jianxiong (吴葛剑雄) were tried in secret, while the twelve Hong Kong youths who tried to flee, Xie Fengxia (谢丰夏), and others were forced to use government-designated lawyers. And in Hainan, 18 lawyers including the president of the state-run Lawyers Association systematically offered bribes to vice-chief judge Zhang Jiahui (张家慧). In the words of public intellectual Yi Zhongtian (易中天), the status quo is beyond description!

The three-year “Sweeping out the dark forces and eradicating the evil” campaign  (扫黑除恶) can hardly hope to escape the pattern of a politicized campaign as usual: unjust, false, or inaccurate cases are virtually in mass production, private enterprises were again garrotted, and private property “legally” forfeited. How many judicial farces have been carried out in the name of “sweeping out evil!” Just like the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the “Strike Hard” campaign in 1983, and Bo Xilai’s anti-crime campaigns in Chongqing, the economic, political, and social consequences of this rapid-fire campaign will become apparent within five to ten years.

In the two years since the implementation of the Supervision Law (监察法), public officials have also become the pray, with their fundamental rights repeatedly violated by the system of power to which they belong. Talk of depression and suicide is common in the officialdom. In the name of “anti-corruption,” the Supervision Law has become a tool for officials’ power struggles and internal strife. It is poison produced by internal rot, and is now visiting retribution on those officials. The whole world knows that China’s judicial (in fact, judicio-political) system has become a corrupt disaster zone because of its excessive power and authority. The combination of the Supervision Law and the impending “Rectification Campaign” within the Party’s law enforcement apparatus is guaranteed to leave many officials skittish and nervous. It’s hard to see whether this is the Party’s method to help break deep-rooted, long-running problems in the officialdom.

Following the problems faced in Tibet and Xinjiang, Mongolian language education, which was originally uncontroversial, has now become another crisis in governing the “periphery,” highlighting the thorny state of ethnic relations. For years many officials stick their heads in the sand and paper over the cracks, turning ethinic problems into chronic ailments that are sure to plague future generations.

Hong Kong’s situation continues to deteriorate, as the National Security Law imposed on the city is in total conflict with Hong Kong’s existing rule of law and respect for individual freedoms. “One Country, Two Systems,” as the CCP’s loyal expert Jin Canrong (金灿荣) has said, “exists in name only.”

The international environment is even worse this year, with the smoke yet to clear in the U.S.-China trade war, and sanctions and diplomatic spats coming one after another. The international community, with the US and Europe at its center, has no true friends of China, and China’s favorability among these countries has dropped below freezing compared to historical levels. China’s “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” has amply demonstrated the shallowness, arrogance, and rudeness of China’s diplomats. Their carelessness has reached the level of Qing-era diplomats, not merely unable to cultivate relations near and far, but actively alienating themselves and becoming laughingstocks.

In 2020, we’ve seen people with insight into the system, like Ren Zhiqiang (任志强) and Cai Xia (蔡霞), abandon vested interests and speak out. Ren Zhiqiang was sentenced to 18 years in prison, while Cai Xia went into exile abroad. We expect and firmly believe that there will soon be more people of conscience willing to follow the path opened by Ren and Cai. Because, as a universal value, constitutionalism and the rule of law are not only pursued by people across the world, but should be pursued by all citizens of China including those with interests in the current system. Constitutionalism and the rule of law are not suited just to American and European countries, but to all the countries of the world.

In facing the advancement and even retrenchment of constitutionalism, rule of law, and human rights, what should we do? Continue to sacrifice freedom and dignity for security, or break our silence to speak up and say no to every violation of these rights?

We are confident that those who promote constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human rights for China cannot be silent when the law is ignored and human rights trampled. Springtime for constitutional government, the rule of law, and human rights will not be born from silence. If we turn a blind eye to lawbreaking and human rights violations around us, then that same suffering will come to us in turn, and we will not be spared even if we reach a position as high as Liu Shaoqi (刘少奇)[1].

All citizens must ask themselves, does the fact that Dr. Li Wenliang (李文亮) was summoned and chastised by police at the very start of the coronavirus pandemic have nothing to do with you? Do those whose land was illegally taken, homes forcibly demolished, and who were illegally jailed have nothing to do with you? Do the human rights lawyers who were illegally stripped of their credentials have nothing to do with you? All of these things bear on you! When you’re in the midst of a pandemic, unable to move freely, or even have friends and family fall ill, when you or your relatives’ property is forcibly taken, home is demolished, when you are imprisoned by the state and no lawyer dares speak up for you… this means that these violations of human rights are directly and indirectly related to you. Therefore, speaking out against injustices done to others is an obligation for all. Fighting for your rights and those of others is a duty every person has towards the community.

Over the course of 2020, the novel coronavirus mercilessly spread throughout the world, like an ominous comet, suddenly bringing disaster on the mortal world and its defenseless inhabitants. We witnessed the death, we witnessed the panic, we perceived the fragility of human beings, and we saw the difference and gap between China and developed countries with constitutional government and rule of law. We are not afraid of the epidemic, nor should we be shy about our shortcomings.

In 2021, the epidemic will continue, we will live in the face of death, but we will prevail. In 2021, the violation of human rights by the authorities will continue to happen, and the trampling of the rule of law by the powerful will still occur, yet we cannot retreat, if we hope the light of constitutionalism and rule of law will shine in China.

Zhang Zhan had this to say: “Looking upward, I am pregnant with hope, I only have to look up, the sky may still be able to drop raindrops; looking downward, full of despair, such despair that comes from people’s submissive existence.” At this moment, Zhang Zhan is still in Shanghai’s Pudong Detention Center continuing her hunger strike, protesting the injustice and miscarriage of justice. Surely she must be more deeply disoriented by this present intertwining of hope and despair. But surely she must be in touch with our hearts.

Then, let’s raise our eyes upward, look up to the stars while planting our feet on the ground. On the first day of 2021, let’s shout out from the heart: we will never be walking corpses. We will continue to concern ourselves with all the sufferings and injustices, until the day that constitutionalism, rule of law, human rights and democracy come to China.

The China Human Rights Lawyers Group

January 1, 2021

[1] Liu Shaoqi was China’s National Chairman before being purged by Mao Zedong for opposing the Great Leap Forward. Arrested in 1967, he was subjected to brutal torture until his death in 1969.


The China Human Rights Lawyers Group was founded on September 13, 2013. It is an open platform for cooperation. Since its founding, members of the group have worked together to protect human rights and promote the rule of law in China through issuing joint statements and representing human rights cases. Any Chinese lawyer who shares our human rights principles and is willing to defend the basic rights of citizens is welcome to join. We look forward to working with you.

4 responses to “Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence: A New Year Statement by The China Human Rights Lawyers Group”

  1. […] Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence: A New Year Statement by The China Human Rig… […]

  2. […] Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence: A New Year Statement by The China Human Rig… […]

  3. […] It has become significantly more perilous for human rights lawyers to operate in China since the 709 crackdown of 2015, when more than 200 human rights activists and lawyers were arrested. In December of 2020, an independent expert with the U.N. described a “five-year assault” on lawyers who stand up for human rights. Nonetheless, in a letter titled “Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence,” a group of human rights lawyers as part of the China Human Rights Lawyers Group struck a defiant tone while ushering in the new year: […]

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