China’s widespread crackdown on rights lawyers and activists over the past three weeks has fueled growing concerns that President Xi Jinping is using the law as a tool to mute dissidents and those who defend them in court.
Since stepping into office, Xi has stressed the importance of “rule of law” and law based governance.
The government said one of the key aims of the ongoing anti-corruption campaign is to make society fairer and prevent abuses by those in power. Last year, the president made “rule of law” a key focus at a high-level party meeting.
But at the same time Xi has exerted an increasingly tighter grip over society since coming to office and the widespread arrest of lawyers tell a different story.
“Actually, it’s rule by law. It’s Xi Jinping as the ruler utilizing legislation or [the] legal system to realize his ruling will over the bureaucracies and over society,” said political scientist Hsu Sze-chien of Academia Sinica in Taipei.
This tactic has been most apparent in the ongoing campaign against many of China’s most outspoken lawyers and activists who have defended some of the country’s highest-profile dissidents, writers and artists.
According to the Hong-Kong based China Human Rights Lawyers Concerned Group, more than 250 rights lawyers and activists have been held for questioning by police since early July, with 15 still criminally detained.
The actions have capped what Maya Wang, China researcher of New York-headquartered Human Rights Watch, said is the worst year for China’s human rights record in two decades.
“He [President Xi] came with a feeling of crisis for the party and he wants to bolster the party’s position as having the monopoly of power. So, to take out these activists is part of the strategy because the party didn’t want anybody to challenge its vision for China,” Wang said.
Party still above law
Last October, top Communist Party officials gathered at a major meeting that was described as setting a “new blueprint for rule of law.”
Officials pledged reforms to give courts more independence and accelerate the country’s anti-corruption drive.
Nearly a year later, critics said it is clear that the reforms have done little to change the fact that the Communist Party remains above the law, and will ignore it when it needs to.
The China Human Rights Lawyers Concerned Group, which is tracking the cases of detained lawyers, said in several cases there are still no criminal charges filed or information about the detainees whereabouts.
The detainees have also been denied legal assistance, a clear violation of China’s own criminal procedures. A practice experienced by other lawyers who have been in detention far longer.
Tang Jingling, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested a year ago on suspicion of "picking quarrels and provoking troubles" but was later charged with "inciting subversion of state power."
Tang was tried last week, but a ruling in his case has not yet been released.
Typically rights activists and lawyers have either faced charges as minor as “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” or as harsh as “inciting subversion of state power.”
The minor offences have, in particular, been increasingly used to police online speech and artistic expression.
Throughout their detention and trials, lawyers have experienced first-hand the abuse of power by law enforcement agencies.
Tang said he was physically tortured by authorities while in detention.
Journalists and diplomats were barred from his trial last week in Guangzhou.
Tang was tried along with a teacher and another writer activist, known as the Guangzhou Three.
Their defense lawyers said during the proceedings that court officials refused to allow them to call witnesses. The Guangzhou Three all face charges of "inciting subversion of state power," a crime that carries a possible sentence of up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.
Pu Zhiqiang, a rights lawyer who was detained last year around the time of the 25th anniversary of the Communist Party’s bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, was held for a year before finally being indicted in May. He is currently awaiting trial.
The charges against Pu were “inciting ethnic hatred” and "picking quarrels and provoking troubles," and based largely on comments he posted on his social media accounts.
While in detention, Pu’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said his client was denied proper medical treatments as well as access to lawyers for more than 20 days.
“Pu Zhiqiang has been listed as a special case, so, unlike regular criminal cases, we lawyers cannot meet with the client at the detention center whenever we want," Mo said.
"We said very clearly in our attorney’s letter that such a practice is against the law. But police officers told us ‘you know we have difficulties that cannot be said.’ They gave no explanations [behind their abuse of power],” Mo added.
With the help of state media to smear the lawyers, the crackdown has so far created a chilling effect.
Analysts say it’s a battle Chinese authorities can’t win in the long run.
“It does create [a] certain effect of scare among ordinary people or NGOs. … But I believe such a scary effect can only last for [a] short term because at the bottom of people’s heart, it cannot be justified,” said Hsu, of Academia Sinica.
The widespread arrest of lawyers in China has not gone unnoticed overseas and has already triggered international condemnation from the United Nations, European Union and the United States as well among others.
Lawyers associations in several countries have jointly issued an open letter to President Xi, voicing their concerns.
As China remains sensitive to international pressures, rights groups are urging foreign groups and countries to continue to make their concerns known over the tightening of speech freedom in China.
“In order to have a healthy relationship with China, whether or not the relationship is based on trade, these governments have to speak up. And, primarily, Xi Jinping is going to have a couple of major state visits one in the UK and one in the U.S. at least in the fall, so, during those occasions, I think it’s very important for leaders to speak up,” said Wang, of Human Rights Watch.