Washington Post: China pulls lawyers and activists into a dark zone of fear

The Washington Post
By Editorial Board
January 18 at 6:32 PM

■ For all the semblance of a judicial system, with lawyers, judges and prosecutors, China’s courts remain a tool of a party-state that sees itself as above the law. People can be detained for months — they simply disappear — and only later formally charged or tried. In China, detention means being sucked into the vortex of arbitrary rule.

In recent years, some lawyers and activists in China attempted, with extraordinary bravery, to navigate this system and work within it. Known as the rights defense movement, the lawyers demanded that authorities follow China’s own laws and rules. They worked in a sort of legal gray zone, tolerated — despite the party-state’s intolerance of dissent — because they handled individual cases and did not seem to threaten the regime.

Human rights lawyer Wang Yu talks during an interview with
Reuters in Beijing in 2014. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

Now, these attorneys are being dispatched to oblivion. After rounding up or questioning 293 of them last summer, and detaining some for as long as six months, China has begun to issue formal charges of subverting state power, which can carry a sentence of life in prison. The charges are akin to saying the lawyers are trying to undermine the regime. Among those who have been accused in recent days are human rights lawyer Wang Yu and several others from the Fengrui law firm in Beijing who were part of the rights defense movement. Ms. Wang was detained in July and has not been heard from since, but lawyers said a notice from the police about the charges had been sent to her mother. Her husband, Bao Longjun, is also detained and facing charges.

Wielding the charge of state subversion marks a dark turn of events in China. In some cases in recent years, individual activists were accused of inciting state subversion, a lesser charge. It was leveled against Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo , who is serving an 11-year prison term for advocating greater freedom of expression and democracy, among other things. In other cases, activists and dissidents were rounded up on lesser charges of provoking trouble or creating public disorder.

President Xi Jinping is now well into a campaign to crush independent voices in China. Recently, four labor activists were detained, and China’s security apparatus appears to be behind the disappearance of five booksellers in Hong Kong in recent months. The booksellers had been peddling tomes critical of Mr. Xi. When they vanished, a chill immediately descended on their publishing house, which announced it would not bring out a forthcoming volume on him.

The charge against the lawyers, subverting state power, is absurd. The lawyers were simply advising clients how to defend themselves under China’s laws; their intentions were pragmatic and relatively modest. But it is now clear they touched a very sensitive nerve, and China’s rulers reacted harshly. The gray zone is being turned into a twilight zone of fear, a message to anyone that they can be taken away in the middle of the night.

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