China: TV Trials ‘Signal New Phase in Attack on Rights’


Chinese lawyers and rights activists appeared in televised trials throughout this week in what seemed to be a new, more public phase of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism, The New York Times reports:

Legal experts and supporters of four defendants denounced the hearings, held on consecutive days in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, as grotesque show trials. All four men were shown meekly renouncing their activist pasts and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced. But for the government, the trials served a broader political purpose.

By airing the abject confessions and accusations of a sweeping, conspiratorial antiparty coalition, Mr. Xi’s administration was “putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot,” Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch said in emailed comments. “The trials thus serve two purposes — to punish the activists, but also to use them to bolster President Xi’s claims,” she said.

Jail sentences meted out to a group of civil rights lawyers in China this week have rocked another legal community: the American Bar Association, The Financial Times reports:

On Saturday the US attorneys’ lobby group will present its inaugural rights award in San Francisco, awarding the prize to a detained Chinese lawyer in absentia — a decision many within the organisation fear could jeopardise its quiet advocacy for legal reforms in China.

The move to honour Wang Yu comes after more than a year of debate within the ABA over how to respond to a tightening political environment in China. The debate mirrors that of many international organisations that have built up programmes to work within the Chinese system, only to find themselves increasingly unwelcome.

The Communist party has become suspicious of foreign funding for civic groups, especially from US organisations such as the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society or the National Endowment for Democracy. A law passed this year in effect places NGOs under the scrutiny of the security forces, rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

China Digital Times adds: rights lawyer Wang Yu was reportedly released after Hong Kong-based media aired a confession-style interview with her. Wang’s interview is the latest in a series of publicized confessions by lawyers and activists who were detained as part of the “Black Friday” sweep launched on July 9, 2015, and the second to be issued by way of Hong Kong media. For CDT, cartoonist Badiucao portrays Wang Yu’s confession as one made at gunpoint, under control of a Party puppet master (above).

With next month’s G-20 summit being held in China, the chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China urged the United States to lead an international effort to demand that the Chinese government drop all charges against the legal professionals and rights advocates detained during the sweeping July 2015 crackdown, cease coerced, forced, and televised “confessions” which are a mockery of justice, and stop harassing and otherwise mistreating the family members, including the wives and children, of those unjustly detained.

In a video confession this week after almost 13 months in detention, Ms Wang rejected the award from the ABA and said “foreign forces” were using her to “attack and smear” the Chinese government, The FT adds:

Her whereabouts are unknown, her husband is in custody and her teenage son is under house arrest after an unsuccessful attempt to escape from China. …The ABA has found itself caught in the middle. In early 2015 it declined to publish a book by Teng Biao (left), a prominent Chinese rights lawyer in exile. Mr Teng released the email he received from the organisation citing “the risk of upsetting the Chinese government”.

The confession “adds fuel to the fire of the continuing debate over what the appropriate ABA response to the vicious repression of human rights lawyers should be,” said Jerome Cohen, the 86-year-old American lawyer who has spearheaded the US legal profession’s engagement with China throughout his career. “If this case results in the termination of the ABA’s praiseworthy activities in China, it would be another classic instance of what Beijing propagandists like to call ‘dropping a rock on your own foot’.”

The trials this week were accompanied by newspaper editorials and several videos amplifying the party’s message that China is the target of conspiratorial subversion, backed by Western capitals or even planned by them. It calls such efforts “color revolutions,” a term taken from upheavals in former Soviet states, The Times adds:

“In fact, the Western forces represented by America often wield the banner of ‘democracy, liberty and rule of law’ to create social conflict in targeted countries, with the intention of overthrowing governments,” one documentary said.

“The central government under the leadership of the party is crystal clear about the dangers of ‘color revolution,’ ” it said. But, it added, “We are extremely confident that China will not become the next Soviet Union.”

The legal proceedings and the drumbeat of propaganda appeared better meshed than ever, said Eva Pils, a legal scholar at King’s College London who has long studied human rights lawyers in China.

“It does feel rather like a program that has been rolled out,” she said. “It’s a trial process that serves the purpose of projecting the power of the state and casting human rights advocates as enemies.”


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