Wall Street Journal: A Shadow Over Chinese New Year

The Wall Street Journal
By Sarah Cook

Feb. 3, 2016 12:48 p.m. ET
■ The families of China’s detained rights activists have little cause for celebration.

During next week’s Lunar New Year, more than one billion Chinese will gather with relatives to celebrate the biggest holiday of the Chinese calendar. But the families of some of China’s leading human-rights defenders won’t be so lucky. In recent weeks, authorities announced a series of especially harsh charges and sentences against more than a dozen lawyers and activists.

Several of these rights lawyers and activists had been detained in July 2015 as part of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown not only against calls for political change but also against legal and Internet activism pursuing fair law enforcement. They had been awaiting their possible, though improbable, release after Jan. 9, the end of their six-month “residential surveillance in a police-designated location”—a form of detention without formal charges. But just days before the deadline, six lawyers, paralegals and administrative assistants were charged with “subversion,” a severe political crime that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Four others were charged with “inciting subversion,” a lesser offense that can draw a five-year sentence and is routinely used to punish acts such as criticizing the government online. The families of at least 17 detainees have received no news and have been left to imagine what the authorities have in store.

Supporters and foreign observers expressed shock at the unusually severe charges and prospect of long prison sentences. They also lamented the implications on China’s human rights and rule of law. “That is too big a charge to put on such a little girl,” said the husband of 24-year-old paralegal Zhao Wei. He hasn’t seen his wife since she was detained last summer.

Members from Civic Party, holding portraits of (L-R) Wang
Qingying, Yuan Chaoyang and Tang Jingling, protest outside
China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, on Jan. 29.
Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Shortly after, on Jan. 15, a Han Chinese activist from Xinjiang was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Zhang Haitao was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally supplying intelligence abroad.” In addition to criticizing government policies in online articles, he had given interviews to U.S.-based radio stations, relaying observations of events in a restive region that is mostly off-limits to foreign journalists. Mr. Zhang’s wife will now be raising their one-month-old son without his father.

The latest blow came on Jan. 29. A Guangzhou court released the verdict for three men—a lawyer, a writer and a teacher—who had been involved in human rights and pro-democracy activities over the past decade. Tang Jingling, Yuan Chaoyang and Wang Qingying were sentenced to between two-and-a-half to five years in prison after already spending 20 months in custody.

Last month’s official decisions highlight two changes in the Party’s authoritarian tactics. The regime is reviving its use of charges such as “subversion” after having shifted to less overtly political charges in the first years of Mr. Xi’s leadership. Authorities are also extensively using Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law to hold activists in isolated “residential surveillance” for six months.

When the provision was adopted in 2012 to curb national-security threats and corruption, rights groups expressed fears that the new rule gave legal credence to the extralegal practice of secretly detaining activists for months without charge. The trends hint at how newer legal restrictions enacted in 2015 to “protect national security” could be used to punish peaceful dissent.

Yet many Chinese activists and their families remain committed to promoting freedom and remain optimistic about China’s future. “Dear Father and Mother … no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live,” wrote Wang Quanzhang, one of the lawyers charged with subversion, in a letter he prepared in case he was detained. “Wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.”

Ms. Cook is a senior research analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.

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