Lawyers face assaults amid China’s crackdown on human rights defenders
Key organisers and influencers have been jailed or await trial or sentencing
‘Those human rights defenders seen by the state as less influential, or as not having the same support base, are rounded up by the police and held for lengthy periods.’ Above, the daily national flag raising and lowering ceremony on Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Photograph: REUTERS/Stringer
The Chinese leadership emphasises the importance of the rule of law while simultaneously subjecting those defending it to outrageous abuses. In the past six months lawyers have been assaulted outside courthouses by mobs and inside courthouses by state officials, all part of a concerted crackdown on human rights defenders.
Strengthening the rule of law has been a priority of Xi Jinping’s since he came to power in China nearly three years ago. He has addressed this issue with such frequency that in late April a collection of his comments on “comprehensively advancing the rule of law” was published , consisting of 193 of his remarks on the subject between December 2012 and February 2015.
For human rights defenders, any advance in the rule of law in China can only be good news following years of abuse at the hands of the state. Since Xi Jinping became President, the situation for human rights defenders has indeed changed significantly. Not only has abuse (harassment, detention, jailing, physical attack) been perpetuated under his rule, it has intensified. President Xi has moved to eliminate any potential challenges to his power, including through his anti-corruption campaign which has tackled the real problem of rampant corruption and purged potential opponents within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Scant regard for the rule of law, however, has epitomised his strategy for dealing with human rights defenders as he attempts to obliterate their networks which have resiliently emerged over the past number of years and which contradict the official narrative regarding social conditions. This classifies “universal values” as an imported Western concept with little relevance to the Chinese people. Increasingly large numbers of Chinese citizens demanding their rights demonstrate that this is simply not true.
Xi Jinping’s strategy to defeat this movement involves removing prominent human rights defenders from the grid by imprisoning them while lower profile activists suffer constant harassment and intimidation. Key organisers and influencers have been jailed or await trial or sentencing, for crimes ranging from demanding transparency within the CCP to calling for equality within the education system to organising civil disobedience campaigns. Trials are consistently marked by irregularities, but this is no surprise in a system with a 99 per cent conviction rate. Xi Jinping has vowed to address this issue, though clearly not for human rights defenders. The purpose of the Chinese legal system is to uphold the charge rather than the rights of the citizen, placing the interests of the party above everything else.
Those human rights defenders seen by the state as less influential, or as not having the same support base, are rounded up by the police and held for lengthy periods. Front Line Defenders has spoken to many human rights defenders subjected to this type of detention and they all tell of similar treatment: sleep deprivation, which in one case extended to 23 days; food deprivation (“I went in fat and came out thin” is a common refrain); and constant interrogation about their human rights activities. When they are eventually released it is often on bail, which severely restricts their freedom for the following 12 months and leaves the threat of re-arrest hanging over them. This is designed to inhibit human rights defenders from resuming their work and to isolate them from their networks.
Perhaps most shocking of all in the context of President Xi’s promotion of the rule of law is the trend of physical attacks on human rights lawyers. These attacks can include the hiring of thugs to beat lawyers as they enter or exit courthouses while local police look on. Attacks can even be carried out by judges themselves, as happened to lawyer Cui Hui in April of this year when she was assaulted after pressing for a resolution to a protracted case. She was punched in the face by a judge and when she appealed to another judge for assistance, he instead instructed bailiffs to join in beating her. And then there was the savage beating inflicted on four lawyers last year when they went to investigate reports of Falun Gong practitioners being detained in an illegal holding centre.
These are not isolated incidents. They represent part of a broader strategy to terrorise, and bully human rights defenders out of doing their legitimate work – work that should be undertaken by a state which supposedly prioritises the rule of law.
New laws targeting NGOs are likely to be introduced later this year and represent the latest step in this strategy to dismantle civil society as it currently exists and to stunt its growth in the future. Under these draft laws it will be illegal for Chinese NGOs and individuals to receive funding from unregistered (in China) overseas organisations. It is all but impossible for Chinese NGOs working on “sensitive” issues, such as defending the rights of the marginalised, to obtain domestic funding, while it is unlikely that a foreign organisation funding such NGOs would find a government body willing to sponsor it in order to allow it to register in China, as dictated by the draft law.
These regulations, along with others contained in the draft, will have a severe impact on the development of civil society and will put human rights defenders, at even greater risk than before.
Xi Jinping recognises that the CCP is facing a legitimacy problem in the eyes of the Chinese people. Slowing economic growth, environmental degradation and spectacular corruption within the party have combined to undermine the credibility and authority of the CCP. President Xi is determined to reverse this trend and to re-establish the party’s dominance in daily life. Human rights defenders are a target because they expose the CCP’s falsehoods and cut through its propaganda.
While growing numbers of Chinese human rights defenders speak truth to power, and face the brutal consequences, the response of Western governments has rarely gone beyond a whimper.
As China’s economic might has grown, the willingness of the West to confront China about its treatment of human rights defenders has declined. We are approaching the 26th anniversary of when the Chinese government turned the People’s Liberation Army on those who were protesting for greater freedoms in Tiananmen Square and around the country. The iconic image of an unarmed man in front of a tank inspired an outpouring of international solidarity. Even a fraction of such a response would be welcomed by human rights defenders in China today who, regardless of new laws, or increased persecution, or support, or lack thereof from the West, will continue to defend the internationally recognised rights of others.
Andrew Anderson is the Deputy Director of Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, based in Dublin, Ireland. www.frontlinedefenders.org