Wall Street Journal: China Cracks Down on Rights Figures With Subversion Charges

The Wall Street Journal
By Josh Chin
Updated Jan. 15, 2016 2:37 a.m. ET

■ Beijing’s move marks a major escalation in effort to squelch dissent as economy declines, activists say

Chinese authorities signaled a return to an earlier, more strident era of social control this week by formalizing the arrests of several long-detained human-rights lawyers and activists on suspicion of subversion.

The use of subversion, a political crime that carries a possible life sentence, marks a dramatic escalation in the Chinese government’s campaign to choke off sources of potential dissent, activists say. It comes as slowing economic growth threatens to exacerbate social tensions in the world’s most-populous country.

Police delivered formal arrest notices to the families of at least 11 lawyers, legal assistants and activists who had been in custody since being rounded up in a nationwide sweep in early July, according to human-rights groups. Well-known human-rights lawyers Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng were among those arrested on suspicion of subversion. They couldn’t be reached, but their supporters rejected the charges as trumped up.

Paramilitary guards stand in front of the gates of Sweden’s
Embassy in Beijing this week after a Swedish man working for
a human-rights group in China was detained on suspicion of
endangering state security. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Beijing also confirmed this week that it had detained a Swedish citizen, Peter Dahlin, on suspicion of endangering state security. Mr. Dahlin, the co-founder of a nonprofit called the China Urgent Action Working Group that works with Chinese human-rights lawyers, disappeared while on his way to the Beijing airport in early January, the nonprofit said in a statement, which described the charges as baseless.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the country would protect Mr. Dahlin’s rights and facilitate Sweden’s performance of its consular duties. On Thursday, Swedish embassy spokeswomanGabriella Augustsson said the embassy had requested to visit a Swedish citizen detained in China but “so far this request has not been met.”

This week’s arrests and detentions suggest Chinese authorities have grown fed up with the challenge posed by the country’s increasingly confrontational community of human-rights lawyers. Many those arrested are members of a group of self-described “die hard” lawyerswho employ unorthodox tactics, including pressing their clients’ cases online and in the streets, in doing battle with often hostile courts.

“A political decision was made that lawyers doing their job in this way was something the authorities couldn’t tolerate,” said Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law and human rights at King’s College London. “It’s incompatible with the goals of the state.”

Chinese authorities have moved aggressively against government critics under Chinese President Xi Jinping. But until recently they have tended to charge targets of their crackdown with minor offenses like tax evasion or disturbing public order—an attempt, many activists say, to be seen as less draconian.

In threatening multiple people with serious political charges, the government appears to be dusting off the harsher approach used under Mr. Xi’s predecessors, according to Lu Jun, a veteran antidiscrimination activist who has worked with many of those detained in the roundup.

“I’m shocked, to be honest. This is a major shift,” Mr. Lu said, referring to the arrests this week. “In the past, even if someone was charged with subversion, it was for inciting subversion. Straight subversion without the ‘inciting’ part becomes very, very serious.”

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner this week repeated American calls for the charges to be dropped and the detained lawyers and activists to be released. China’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday rejected that, saying they were being investigated according to law. Chinese authorities haven’t otherwise commented on the arrests.

Some supporters trace the crackdown on lawyers to the case of Wu Gan, a prominent activist employed by the Fengrui law firm. Mr. Wu, who goes by the nickname Super Vulgar Butcher online, was detained and then formally arrested last year on suspicion of inciting subversion after he discovered video footage that contradicted government accounts of a controversial police shooting in the country’s northeast.

Wang Yu, who was among the lawyers who attempted to defend Mr. Wu, was detained on July 8 on her way to the Beijing airport a few days after he was formally arrested. Two days later, police rounded up hundreds of other lawyers and activists, eventually detaining two dozen, in an action that has come to be known in Chinese human-rights circles as “Black Friday.”

“That case was the fuse,” said Mr. Lu, the antidiscrimination activist, said of Mr. Wu’s arrest. “Though the crackdown was probably only a matter of time.”

Ms. Wang’s lawyer said police had illegally denied his requests to visit his client and told him that she had chosen someone else to represent her. Police didn’t say who her new lawyer was.

“From the beginning, this entire episode has been completely abnormal, completely illegal,” said the lawyer, Wen Donghai. “They’re doing everything they can to push lawyers out of the process.”

Ms. Wang and most of the others detained in last year’s sweep were being held in the coastal city of Tianjin, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a U.S.-based group that has been monitoring the crackdown. Tianjin police referred questions to the city prosecutor’s office. Repeated calls to the prosecutor’s office rang unanswered Thursday and Friday.

Once a fractured group, human-rights lawyers have also grown increasingly cohesive and willing to support each other in clashes with authorities, Ms. Pils said.

A pivotal event occurred in 2013, when one Fengrui lawyer ordered detained for 10 days by a court in eastern China’s Jiangsu province for insisting he be allowed to photograph a document while defending of member of the banned Falun Gong religious group. News of the detention spread through social media to other lawyers, who mounted online and offline protests that ended with Mr. Wang’s early release.

State media reports following the Black Friday sweep accused the lawyers of illegally disrupting legal processes on numerous occasions, including by staging protests outside courthouses and being overly confrontational in court. The state-run Xinhua News Agency reported in late July that Zhou Shifeng, a partner at Fengrui,had confessed the firm broke the law in defending some of its clients.

Some lawyers who were interrogated during the sweep but not detained said they believed the harsh treatment of their colleagues stemmed from concerns in Beijing over turbulence in the country’s previously supercharged economy. China is widely expected to announce its slowest annual economic growth in more than two decades when it releases 2015 GDP figures next week. Layoffs and factory closings fueled a doubling of labor protests in the first 11 months of last year, according to Hong Kong-based civic group China Labor Bulletin.

“They’re worried a slowdown in growth will engender all kinds of dissatisfaction, factories closing, people losing jobs. So they’re cracking down on human-rights lawyers and human-rights leaders ahead of time,” said one human-rights lawyer who was interrogated during the Black Friday roundup.

Tang Jitian, another human-rights lawyer, said that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict any of the detained lawyers of subversion and that the point in arresting them was to create a climate of fear for other lawyers.

The effects of the crackdown could be felt beyond the relatively small circle of human-rights lawyers, Ms. Pils said.

“This is a much more serious attack, not just on human-rights lawyers, but on civil society more widely and the very idea of a legal system in which lawyers are expected to play a forceful advocacy role,” she said.

Mr. Dahlin, the Swedish nonprofit worker, is the first foreigner to be formally detained on state security in connection with human-rights lawyers. Michael Caster, a colleague of Mr. Dahlin’s, said the Swede’s detention “makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s stated commitments to the rule of law.”

Write to Josh Chin at [email protected]

Chinese authorities filed subversion charges against nearly a dozen human-rights lawyers detained months ago, and detained a Swedish social worker in Beijing for supporting 
human-rights groups.

Photo: Reuters

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