The New York Times
By Michael Forsythe
Jan. 12, 2016
■ Hong Kong — The Chinese police have formally arrested four human rights advocates in the past week on the charge of subverting state power, after detaining them for the past six months, according to one of their colleagues and rights groups.
The families of two lawyers, Zhou Shifeng and Wang Quanzhang, both of the Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, received letters on Tuesday that notified them of their relatives’ formal arrest, their colleague, Liu Xiaoyuan, said by telephone. Mr. Zhou is the director of the firm. Mr. Liu said that Li Shuyun, an intern lawyer at the firm, was also arrested under the charge, as was Zhao Wei, an assistant to another rights lawyer. The letters were dated Friday.
|Li Wenzu, who is married to Wang Quanzhang, and their son,
Qiaoqiao, last week. Mr. Wang, a lawyer at the Fengrui Law
Firm in Beijing, was formally arrested last week, a
Fred Dufour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The four rights defenders were part of what was until last year a flourishing group of legal experts who represented prominent Chinese clients, including the artist Ai Weiwei, the blind activist Chen Guangcheng and the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, as well as ordinary people seeking justice through the Communist Party-controlled court system. In July, more than 200 of these experts were rounded up in a nationwide sweep and pilloried by the state-run news media as swindlers. Many were detained at an undisclosed location in the port city of Tianjin.
The charge of subverting state power, which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison, is far more serious than several human rights advocates had expected in the four recent cases and suggests that the government believes that these people were seeking to undermine the state through their legal work. By way of comparison, the Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power,” regarded by many as a slightly lesser offense.
“Cracking down on lawyers is one thing,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human rights researcher based in Hong Kong who studies China’s legal system. “But this is now being presented as lawyers who are trying to overthrow the regime.”
The website of China’s Ministry of Justice states that ringleaders who “organize, plot or carry out” subversion are given sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison, while “active participants” are sentenced to three to 10 years. Other participants receive sentences of less than three years for subversion, which can include seeking to “overthrow the socialist system.”
The crackdown on lawyers is part of a wide-ranging constriction of civil society under President Xi Jinping, who is intent on shoring up the Communist Party, which has ruled China since 1949. His government is enacting new limits on what people can say online, making it more difficult for foreign nongovernmental organizations to work in China, and restricting the use of Western textbooks at the country’s universities.
In recent days, two other rights defenders, Xie Yang and Xie Yanyi, were formally charged with inciting subversion of state power, said Maya Wang, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong.
The Chinese police can hold people for up to six months under a system called “residential surveillance in a designated location,” which can mean detention at some secure facility like a hotel run by the police. After that, they must be formally charged, released pending further investigation or released without charges, Mr. Rosenzweig said.
Several of the most prominent rights lawyers detained in July, including Wang Yu of the Fengrui Law Firm, who defended Mr. Tohti, appear to still be in detention, and there has been no information about whether they have been charged.
Wen Donghai, a lawyer for Wang Yu, said on Tuesday that the members of her family, who live in Inner Mongolia, had not yet received a formal arrest letter, but that he believed she would also be arrested on suspicion of subversion or inciting to subvert state power.
“Now they see these lawyers as a criminal group,” Mr. Wen said. “Subversion or inciting subversion — these are all fancy charges we have never heard of. It’s just ridiculous.”
Calls made to the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, which made the arrests, went unanswered.
Kiki Zhao and Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.