■ On Thursday it was Zhou Shifeng’s turn to take the stage in the Chinese inquisition. A lawyer who worked with people who challenged the Communist Party, he was charged with “spreading subversive thoughts” under the influence of “anti-China forces” and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Mr. Zhou’s was the third of four show trials in Tianjin, about 80 miles southeast of Beijing, following a nationwide crackdown on legal activists and other dissidents last summer in which more than 300 people were detained or questioned. On Wednesday, Hu Shigen, an advocate for democracy and religious freedom, was sentenced to seven and a half years; the day before, Zhai Yanmin, an activist lawyer, received a suspended three-year term for organizing protests; awaiting his turn is Li Heping, another human rights lawyer.
The campaign against legal activists is part of President Xi Jinping’s broad assault against any criticism of Communist Party rule. It has also included tough new controls on nongovernmental organizations, especially those with foreign connections, and a crackdown on religious organizations not sanctioned by the government.
The pattern is dismally familiar in the annals of authoritarian governments. Mr. Xi’s efforts in these trials to portray the defendants as agents of “foreign hostile forces” working to foment a “color revolution” against the government echoes Vladimir Putin’s habit of identifying the United States as the architect of all Russia’s problems. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has accused the West of supporting the plotters of the failed coup last month, and used the coup attempt as a pretext for his crackdown.
What is sad is that this xenophobic propaganda does work with many people, especially when the government controls much of the media and clamps down on independent voices and organizations. Presidents Xi, Putin and Erdogan enjoy favorable public ratings.
But the fact that people like Mr. Hu continue to emerge to speak the truth ensures that repressive regimes will never be able to fool all the people all the time. Mr. Hu, 61, served 16 years in prison for trying to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and the authorities made clear that his harsh sentence reflected his religious activities and failure to “repent” since his release in 2008.
The show trials all featured obviously coerced “confessions.” The defendants, with the 15 or so other dissidents who remain in detention since July 2015, have been held incommunicado and are not allowed to appoint their own lawyers.
There is something pathetic in the faith of leaders like Mr. Xi that show trials somehow legitimize their actions. The farce in Tianjin serves only to highlight the heroism of people who believe in democracy.