Posts tagged: Human Rights

A Threat to Justice Everywhere: China’s Persecution of the Uyghurs

By , February 22, 2022

Originally published in Commonweal

Early last December, a group of nine British lawyers and human-rights specialists gathered in a wood-paneled room under the glass dome of Church House, near Westminster Abbey in downtown London. They were there to do what the United Nations and its member states have so far failed to accomplish: conduct a thorough review of five years of evidence regarding the Chinese government’s persecution of its minority Muslim Uyghur population in the province of Xinjiang, a sprawling semi-autonomous territory in northwest China. On December 9, after hearing days’ worth of live testimony and poring over thousands of pages of expert reports, as well as published regulations of the Chinese government and other leaked documents, the independent Uyghur Tribunal pronounced its verdict. It found the Chinese government guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide of its Uyghur population.

Such an important determination should not have taken this long, nor should the judgment have fallen to a people’s court. Since 2017 the world has known—through media reports, academic studies, and witness testimony—that the Chinese government has summarily interned more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang concentration camps. . . .

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What’s Biden’s plan when our athletes protest and get detained?

By , December 12, 2021

Last Monday, the White House announced that, because of the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” President Joe Biden will not be sending any diplomatic, government or other official representatives to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.  With the U.S.’ announcement, other countries and territories have followed suit. New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Scotland, Kosovo and Japan all have announced similar diplomatic boycotts.  To its credit, Lithuania preceded the United States in announcing a diplomatic boycott by three days.

But in light of the Chinese government’s ongoing persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims – the unlawful internment of one to three million in camps (and yes, it is unlawful under Chinese law), the criminalization of their religion, the restriction on Uyghur births, the constant destruction of their mosques and other religious grounds, the seizure of Uyghurs’ passports, and the dehumanization of Uyghurs – a diplomatic boycott is not enough.  Our athletes’ participation in the shadows of what the U.S. government has declared a genocide and U.S. corporations’ Olympic sponsorship will make the Beijing Winter Games come off as business as usual.  We don’t look back on Berlin 1936 because we sent our diplomats to attend the Nazi’s Olympics.  We look back on the Berlin Summer Games because we allowed our athletes to perform before a regime that we knew was persecuting and dehumanizing its Jewish population.  And in allowing for business as usual, we demonstrated our lack of commitment to protecting Germany’s Jews and gave the Nazi government the imprimatur of global legitimacy.  With just a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, expect the same result which, if history is a guide, does not bode well for the Uyghurs.   

Additionally, leaving the moral responsibility to do more on the shoulders of our athletes is not only unfair to them, it is also dangerous.  Many of our athletes are in their late teens to mid-twenties, peak age to take on causes and protest.  In March of this year, likely recognizing their athletes’ proclivity to activism and the U.S.’ tradition of free speech, the U.S. Olympic Committee permitted demonstrations at the U.S. Olympic trials.  At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, U.S. shot-putter Raven Saunders, while on the medal podium, held up her arms in an “x” in protest for the oppressed of the world.

Tibetan flag

But such protests in Beijing could result in severe consequence for our athletes under Chinese law.  Disrespecting the Chinese flag is a crime under Chinese Criminal Law (Article 299) and anything touching upon Tibet or Xinjiang, such as unfurling or wearing a Tibetan or East Turkestan flag or symbol, could be deemed inciting separatism (Article 103) or inciting ethnic hatred (Article 249).  Similar with any show of support for an independent Taiwan or for protestors in Hong Kong.  Even writing #WhereIsPengShuai could easily fall under the Chinese government catch-all, anti-activist criminal prohibition against picking quarrels and provoking troubles. (Article 293(4): “making disturbances in public places. . . .”).  Even if the Chinese government doesn’t want to throw the book at a foreign athlete, there is always administrative detention – a 15-day prison sentence without trial – as a result of “disturbing public order” that could be a good way to prove its point.

East Turkestan flag

The fact that the world will be watching should not afford any comfort. The past few years have shown that the Chinese government has no qualms in using its legal system to prove a political point.  For almost two years, the Chinese government detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation of Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.  American citizens and siblings Victor Liu and Cythnia Liu, who went to China to visit family, were forbidden from leaving for over three years, likely as a way to pressure their businessman father to turn himself in on fraud charges.  Even the United States Department of State has noted the political use of the legal system , warning Americans traveling to China that the “government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law.”

So what’s the Biden’s administration’s plan when one of our athletes is detained or not allowed to leave China?  Has the U.S. Olympic Committee informed athletes’ parents and family what it will do when their relative goes missing?  The Biden administration and the U.S. Olympic Committee need to be honest with our athletes and their families that protesting in China could have real consequences and if they do protest, communicate now what the U.S. government will do for them.  It’s funny how our choice to engage in a diplomatic boycott also puts us, the bastion of free speech, in the awkward situation that to ensure our athletes’ return, we have to tell them not to protest against some of the gravest human rights violation in the world today.  Perhaps a more complete boycott – athletes, corporate sponsors, media coverage – would have been the better choice, both morally and for the safety of our athletes. 

GW Law Symposium on The Crisis in Xinjiang

By , March 24, 2021

On Thursday, March 25 and Friday, March 26, the George Washington Law School’s Uyghur Human Rights Initiative (UHRI) is hosting a two-day symposium on the atrocities in Xinjiang and what we can do about it. It kicks off at 4 PM on Thursday, March 25 with a keynote address from Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur activist in the United States whose dad was given a life sentence in Xinjiang.

I will be speaking at the panel on international law which will also feature Preston Lim, Jewher Ilham and Don Clarke. To RSVP to that panel or any other panels, please email uhri@law.gwu.edu

The Human Cost of China’s One Child Policy – A Must See Documentary

By , June 18, 2019

To say that co-directors Wang Nanfu and Zhang Jialing’s One Child Nation is a tour de force is a ridiculous understatement; it is a scathing critique of the Chinese government’s continued willingness to sacrifice the souls of its people for its unilateral desire for economic development.  Last week, the world remembered that trade-off when it commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s killing of peaceful protesters around Tiananmen Square, all in the name of stability and economic success.  In One Child Nation, Wang and Zhang expose yet another of the Chinese government’s one-sided bargains: its violent enforcement of the one child policy.

In an effort to curb its rapidly growing population, between 1979 and 2015, the Chinese government instituted a one child policy.  In a society that prizes children, and male children especially, restricting married couples to one child was never going to be a hit.  And that’s how Wang and Zhang begin their film, showing the intense propaganda that was necessary to get the people’s buy-in.  Reaching every city, town and village, the government indoctrinated the people into believing that having one child was their patriotic duty; those who had more than one were to be socially shunned.  Even that propaganda took its toll.  Wang, who was the first of two children during that era, admitted that growing up, she was embarrassed that she had a sibling, internalizing the propaganda that her family was using up the state’s resources and hindering China’s progress, all for their selfish interest of having a second child.

But as One Child Nation shows, propaganda was only the start. Quickly, the movie descends into the more horrific aspects of the Chinese government’s one child policy: the forced sterilizations, abortions and killing of babies.

By merely reading about these acts in the pages of the New York Times and other western newspapers over the years, it has been easy to shrug them off as isolated incidents.  But One Child Nation makes clear that these were not one-off acts.  And in showing the pictures of women being dragged, kicking and screaming, to be sterilized, or the almost full born fetuses that an artist collected after finding them in the trash, wrapped in a yellow plastic bag labeled “medical waste,” or the almost catatonic expressions on the everyday people who experienced the policy firsthand, either because they had to implement it or because it was their baby that had to be killed, One Child Nation ensures that you never forget.

Co-directors Zhang Jialing (L) and Wang Nanfu (R)

And this is what makes One Child Nation so powerful and so successful in its condemnation of the one child policy and the Chinese government’s insistence on economic development no matter the human cost.  Like nothing before it, One Child Nation visualizes the pain and suffering of the Chinese people, both the perpetrators of the policy and its victims.  And the prevalence of these forced abortions and sterilizations become readily apparent when Wang interviews the village midwife. In the 20 years that she practiced, she preformed between 10,000 to 20,000 abortions and sterilizations.  Quickly your mind does the math – if this is just one midwife in one rural village, the number of force abortions and sterilizations country-wide must be staggering.

But to truly understand the human and societal toll of China’s one child policy, Wang centers the film on her family in rural Jiangxi province, a brave choice that is a testament to Wang’s commitment to letting the world know what happened as opposed to protecting the privacy of her family.  While Wang is very much aware of the cruelty of the one child policy, her family do not appear to be.  There are moments in some of Wang’s interviews with her relatives  – where they can speak so nonchalantly about the abandonment of a baby – that makes one cringe.  But then it is easy for us in the Western world to cringe; we never had to experience a policy that required such a choice.

Propaganda poster from the time period

One example is Wang’s interview with her mother, when she admits that she helped her uncle abandon the uncle’s newborn daughter, in a market, hoping someone would pick her up.  For Wang’s relatives, the logic was clear: abandon the girl and try for a son. But no one else wanted a baby girl, and by the second day, with a body covered in mosquito bites, Wang’s cousin died.

Another of Wang’s female cousins was sold to a trafficker.  Luckily, this cousin was born later than the first one, when the market for international adoptions began to flourish with the Chinese government lifting of its ban on foreign adoptions in 1992.  Instead of leaving girls to die, mothers could sell them to traffickers for placement in an orphanage.  Unfortunately, as One Child Nation demonstrates, the market for these adoptions became so profitable that traffickers and government officials began stealing girls from rural families that had more than one child, even if these families had paid the fine.

For almost 40 years, the Chinese people – especially women in the rural areas – have had to undergo tremendous suffering under China’s one child policy.  In a particularly moving montage, Wang and Zhang splice together each of their interviewees’ response to one question: why.  And each says the same thing: there was nothing they could do.  Only one person was able to express the pain of the one child policy  – the 16 year-old whose identical twin sister was stolen from her family, sold to traffickers and now lives in the United States.

As One Child Nation makes clear, the question “why” needs to be asked of the Chinese government: why must the Chinese people continue to suffer because of its unilateral decision to seek economic gain at all costs, including trampling on people’s basic human rights.  After the government-made famine of the Great Leap Forward, the shattering of traditional bonds in the Cultural Revolution, the murder of unarmed civilians near Tiananmen Square, and now the societal toll of the one child policy, when will the Chinese people be able to have a say as to whether their sacrifice is worth it?  

The human toll of China’s one child policy; this girl’s identical twin sister is in America

Masterfully directed and powerfully curated, One Child Nation finally gives the Chinese people their voice. And what they are saying – that denying them their dignity could never be worth it – is not something the Chinese government wants to hear, especially as it peddles abroad its model of economic development above all other human rights.  Unfortunately, the United Nations has become a receptive audience.  In an April speech in Beijing, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ sole focus was on economic development and how Beijing’s current international economic platform of the Belt and Road Initiative was perfectly aligned with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.  There was no mention of the danger to other human rights that could arise if the singular focus is economic development or the need to ensure that those human rights are also allowed to flourish on an equal footing with economic development.  But One Child Nation makes clear that those other rights desperately need to be protected; if they are not, then governments will be able to inflict any human rights violations they want all in the name of economic development.  While this is a movie everyone must see, Antonio Guterres in particular would be well-advised to see this movie before he once again applauds the Chinese government for its economic development.  It’s time he – and the world asks – at what cost?

Rating: ★★★★★

Next Showings: Nantucket, MA – June 19 – 24, 2019 at the Nantucket Film Festival; and Washington, D.C. – June 19 – 23, 2019 at the AFI Docs Film FestivalOne Child Nation is supposed to have a nation-wide release on August 9, 2019.  To stay up to date on One Child Nation, check out the film’s website here.

China’s Peaceful Rise? The Fate of Lawyer Liu Yao

By , March 4, 2018

Since 2004, it has been illegal to build golf courses in China.  Not only do they suck up a tremendous amount of water, but all too often local officials unlawfully appropriate farmers’ land for these golf courses.  In 2015, President Xi Jinping focused his anti-corruption campaign on the sport, forbidding Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials from playing the game.  But even with these prohibitions, golf still reins.  Since 2004, over 400 new golf courses have been illegally built.

Thus, one would think that the Chinese government would welcome a local tip that an official was appropriating village land to sell to a developer to build a golf course.  But that is not how the Chinese government responded when, in August 2015, Guangdong attorney Liu Yao reported precisely that.  Instead, Liu Yao now sits in a jail cell, serving a 20 year sentence on what most believe are trumped-up charges in retaliation for his whistle-blowing.

Like many Chinese human rights lawyers, Liu Yao is not a stranger to the inside of a Chinese prison.  In 2008, Liu was given a four year sentence for leading a demonstration of farmers who had not been properly compensated when government officials took their land. His sentence was decreased to 18 months after the Shenzhen Lawyers Association began a campaign to expose the sham that was his conviction.

But as in every society, land has value and the powerful will seek to unlawfully strip the poor of their land rights, enriching themselves in the process. For China, that struggle is happening in the rural villages. And that is what makes Liu, an effective advocate for these rural poor, a danger to the powerful.

Liu Yao awaiting his verdict

But Liu is more than just an advocate.  He is one also of them, deepening his clients’ faith and trust in him.  As Tom Mitchell reported back in 2009, Liu himself is the son of farmers, teaching himself the law after witnessing injustices against his family and feeling powerless to do anything about it.  He knows the value of land to farmers and since passing the bar exam in 2003, has successfully helped farmers in his home province of Guangdong to fight to keep their land or, at the very least, for the market value of what they are forced to give up.

So when He Zhongyou, the Party Secretary of Heyuan City in rural Guangdong, appropriated thousands of farming fields to sell to a company to build an “ecotourist site”, Liu, whose 2008 conviction resulted in his disbarment, did what he could: he filed a complaint about He Zhongyou to the CCP’s Commission for Discipline Inspection in Guangdong.  Make no mistake, He Zhongyou’s ecotourism development was not a secret to the central government; the local state-run media had already celebrated He Zhongyou’s development.  But what Liu highlighted was the fact that the ecotourist site was to also include an illegal golf course, something not reported by the press.  And Liu did not just submit the complaint.  A few days later, on August 22, 2015, he also published it on his blog for all to read.

On December 26, 2015, while meeting with a colleague, Liu Yao was grabbed by a number of men, thrown into an unmarked minivan and taken away according to an article that appeared in the Southern Metropolis Daily.

For over six months, Liu was held incommunicado, under the now infamous and well-abused legal procedure of “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL).  Under Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), RSDL is permitted when the individual is being investigated for national security crimes; national security also permits the police to deny access to lawyers and family members (CPL, Art. 37; see also RSDL Monitor for more on the abuse of RSDL on human rights defenders).  The “evidence” the police used to claim that it was investigating Liu Yao for national security crimes, was a picture of Liu with two well-known Western China law experts, Professors Jerome Cohen and Eva Pils.  Because of that picture, the police claimed that they were investigating Liu for “providing state secrets to foreigners.”

Liu Yao and his wife, Lai Wei’E

Ultimately, the police’s national security investigation went nowhere except for the very useful fact that it provided a fig leaf of legality to deny Liu access to his own lawyer.  On June 23, 2016, Liu was officially charged with extortion (Art. 274 of the Criminal Law (CL)), fraud (CL, Art.192,) , and trafficking in children (CL, Art. 240).  The extortion and fraud claims related to Liu’s work in achieving beneficial settlements from some of the local industries for their illegal appropriation of his clients’ land.  The trafficking charge was a result of his and his wife’s adoption of a baby from an unwed mother who already had three other children.  But in addition to Liu, four local farmers were also charged as well as Liu’s own son.  Liu’s wife, Lai Wei’E was also held for a year, allegedly while the police were investigating the legality of the adoption.

With a closed door trial, lack of access to a lawyer, and the fact that Liu was exposing the local government’s most important revenue-generating strategy – illegal land grabs – a judgment of guilty on all charges was all but certain.  And on April 24, 2017, the Heyuan City Intermediate People’s Court found Liu Yao guilty, sentencing him to 20 years and a fine of 1.4 million RMB ($221,000).  Liu’s son was given four years and three months for helping his father post materials online with the three farmers receiving sentences ranging from four years to nine and half years.

He Zhongyou

Even with the Chinese government crackdown on human rights lawyers that began in earnest in July 2015, Liu’s 20 year sentence is harsh.  It is almost triple that which was given to the “ringleaders” of China’s human rights lawyers.  Such a harsh sentence likely shows the continued importance to the Chinese government of being able to take farmers’ land without proper compensation.  Even representing Falun Gong participants, petitioners, other rights activists is not as threatening to the government as representing those who challenge an important revenue source to local officials.

And what happened to He Zhongyou after Liu Yao exposed his land grab to build a golf course?  He has had a series of promotions.  In January 2016, as Liu languished in detention, He Zhongyou became the vice-governor of Guangdong Province, an influential position in one of China’s wealthiest provinces.  In May 2017, after Liu Yao received his 20 year sentence, He Zhongyou was again promoted to the powerful position of Secretary of the CPP’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission for Guangdong.

From the website for the resort that shows the golf course

And the illegal golf course? It’s been built along with a resort of luxury RVs, personal saunas and a Disney-like castle to serve as the golf club.  For this playground of the wealthy, Liu Yao got 20 years, pretty much a life sentence for this 56-year-old.

Since taking over the leadership in 2012, Xi Jinping has attempted to reassure foreign powers that China’s rise is peaceful.  But all evidence points otherwise.  In the summer, it was the unnecessary death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while he was serving an 11 year prison sentence; last week it was the mysterious death of human rights lawyer Li Baiguang after being admitted to a state-run hospital for stomach pains; a few days ago it was Xi’s moves to eliminate term limits; and then there is Liu Yao’s 20 year sentence for exposing the corruption and injustice that Xi’s government has publicly stated it wants to eradicate.  Increasingly, China’s rise – or more apt, Xi’s consolidation of power – has not been peaceful.  It is time foreign government recognize that what is happening to China’s human rights defenders is not an outlier but is instead a reflection of the governing philosophy of Xi’s regime, both domestically and internationally.  And it’s time they start to care and raise these issues publicly.

Two More Civil Rights Activists to Be Sentenced on Tuesday; Lawyer Wang Quanzhang still MIA

By , December 25, 2017

UPDATE – Dec. 26 @ 10:00 AM, EST – As expected, Wu Gan was found guilty of subverting state power.  He was given one of the harshest sentences yet – 8 years (with about 2 and a half already served).  His release date is May 18, 2023.  Xie Yang escaped any prison time, with his court noting that he plead guilty to the charge of inciting subversion and his actions did not cause severe damage to national security.  Xie also again publicly withdrew his claims of torture while in custody.

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China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group announcement about the upcoming court appearances in Wu Gan’s (R) case and Xie Yang’s (L) case

As the sun sets on Christmas 2017, China will awake on Tuesday to two more civil rights activists being convicted for seeking to end injustice in their country.  According to lawyer Liang Xiaojun, the courts will finally issue verdicts – and possibly sentences – in the cases against advocate Wu Gan and lawyer Xie Yang, two civil rights activists arrested and charged in the wake of the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 250 civil rights lawyers and activists (“the 709 Crackdown”).  Although both had their trials months ago – Wu Gan on August 17, 2017 at a closed-door trial at the Tianjin Intermediate Court and Xie Yang on May 8, 2017 at the Changsha Intermediate Court – verdicts, and in the case of Xie Yang, a possible re-trial, will be announced tomorrow morning at each of the respective courts.  Wu’s verdict will be handed down at 8:30 AM local time and Xie’s court will deal with his case an hour later.

While both have undergone severe treatment in custody, with allegations of torture, expect a much harsher sentence for Wu Gan.  First, Wu Gan has been charged with the more severe crime of “subversion of state power,” a charge that, if he is determined to be a ringleader, carries a sentence of no less than 10 years under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law.  If he is considered a mere participant, the law still requires a sentence of no less than five years.  Xie Yang has been charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”  It’s the verb of inciting that will inevitably lead to a lesser sentence under Article 105 of five years or less (unless of course he is considered a “ringleader; then five years minimum).  Further, since his trial, Xie Yang has been out on bail.  Although constantly surveilled  by police, it provides a touch more freedom than being trapped in a Chinese detention facility.

A female character who stabs to death a government official after he assumes she is a prostitute and tries to rape her in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.

Second, Wu Gan – who often uses the online pen name of Super Vulgar Butcher – is the activist that defies the Chinese government’s current narrative – a narrative that believes that middle class, intellectual lawyers have become entrapped by “foreign forces,” forces like George Soros and the U.S. government that funds Chinese civil rights non-profits.  But that is not Wu Gan.  Instead, for the first 35 years of his life, Wu Gan was just an average Chinese citizen.  A former soldier, Wu Gan was a security guard at the Xiamen Gaoji International Airport until he resigned in 2008 to work full-time on his online activism, wanting to expose the everyday injustices that frustrated him.  In 2009, Wu Gan brought societal attention to the case of Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed to death a government official who attempted to rape her.  While her story would eventually appear in Jia Zhangke’s internationally-acclaimed film, A Touch of Sin, it was Wu Gan who brought the injustice of her case to light.  His activism around the case sparked an online debate about rampant government corruption, the flagrant abuse of prostitutes by government officials as well as the right of women to defend themselves.  It was also successful, resulting in Deng Yujiao being convicted of the much lesser crime of “causing injury with intent” as opposed to the original murder charge.

Photo of Wu Gan at his May 2015 protest outside the courthouse. Photo courtesy of Change China

Further, Wu Gan’s strategies just get under the skin more.  Wu’s advocacy includes using online humor, satire, crowdfunding and street performances to draw attention to the Chinese government’s abuse of people’s rights.  In 2011, Wu published a series of online “How To” pamphlets: Guide to Butchering Pigs (strategies on how to conduct a campaign to protect human rights); Guide to Drinking Tea (how to deal with the police during interrogations); and Guide to Petitioners Fighting Against Forced Demolitions (instruction manual on how individuals can fight to protect their home from force demolition).  Each are widely popular in China and not just for their fun titles but because they are effective teaching tools.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Wu Gan’s May 2015 street protest to overturn the death sentence of four criminal defendants who had been convicted of capital murder even though each was tortured while in custody.  Wu stood outside the courthouse with two handmade signs – one with a picture of the chief judge with a Hitler moustache and one with the tombstone of the chief judge with an engraving highlighting his lack of integrity and ignorance of justice.  Situated between the signs was Wu, with his middle fingers up on each hand.  While that kind of protest elicits chuckles in the West, in China it is not tolerated.  Wu Gan was detained and has been in custody since.  Regardless of the fact that the four criminal defendants were exonerated in 2016, Wu Gan will still likely see a prison sentence as a result of his advocacy for justice.

Xie Yang in happier times with his daughter. Xie’s wife and two daughters were able to flee China earlier this year and now are in the United States.

But make no mistake, lawyer Xie Yang’s detention has been no walk in the park.  While being held incommunicado, Xie was physically tortured according to his lawyers who eventually got access to him.  And like Wu Gan, Xie’s crime has been his advocacy on behalf of others.  Xie Yang has long represented China’s most vulnerable: Christians; members of China’s Democratic Party; petitioners whose land was unlawfully seized by the government; and other activists.  In May 2015, Xie had been retained by the family of Xu Chunhe after the police officer who killed him was found not guilty of any crime.  Although Xu Chunhe, unarmed, was with his three young children and his 81 year-old mother in a crowded train station, the officer still shot and killed Xu Chunhe.  According to the officer, his act was one of self-defense; but for for most Chinese people, Xu Chunhe’s case was yet another example of police acting with impunity.  Thus, Xie Yang’s advocacy in bringing a wrongful death case on behalf of the family would go to the heart of the Chinese government’s police state.  And for that, he is now facing the charge of inciting subversion of state power.

But while Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s cases will finally be dealt with tomorrow, there is still one activist that has disappeared completely, lawyer Wang Quanzhang.  Another victim of the 709 Crackdown, Wang has not been heard from since August 4, 2015, when he was detained for “inciting subversion of state power.”  Neither his wife, family, nor the lawyers hired by his family have been able to meet with him and no trial has been set for Wang even though it has been more than two years since he was first taken into custody.  While Wu Gan and Xie Yang’s fates will be known tomorrow, it is the unknown of what is happening to Wang Quanzhang – and why – that is most alarming.  Denied access to lawyers, unable to meet with family, no speedy trial, how is this a country with a rule of law?

The Sentencing of Jiang Tianyong: What it Means for China & the World

By , December 3, 2017

Civil rights activist, Jiang Tianyong, sitting in the courtroom awaiting his sentence on Nov. 21, 2017

Last month, and three months after civil rights activist Jiang Tianyong pled guilty to “inciting subversion of state power,” the Changsha Intermediate Court finally issued its sentence: two years in prison (much of it already served) and the deprivation of Jiang’s political rights for three years.

As far as the crime of subverting state power goes, a crime the Chinese government has increasingly used to silence its civil rights activists, things could have been worse.  Jiang is seen as a leader in China’s civil rights circles, a lawyer who has daringly taken on some of China’s most politically sensitive cases, such as representing Falun Gong practitioners as well as ethnic Tibetans in the aftermath of the 2008 Tibetan riots.  As a result of his zealous advocacy in these cases, in 2009, the Chinese government denied the renewal of his law license.  But lack of a law license did not stopped Jiang from continuing his work.  Ironically, much of his advocacy began to focus on a new vulnerable group: China’s civil rights lawyers.  In 2011, Jiang played an active role in ensuring that blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s cruel house arrest remained in the public eye.  More recently, Jiang was important in supporting many of his colleagues who were caught up in the Chinese government’s July 9, 2015 nationwide crackdown on over 200 civil rights lawyers and activists (“709 Crackdown”). Through blog posts, tweets, calls for protests and interviews with foreign media as well as with Philip Alston, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Jiang effectively kept the 709 Crackdown visible.  It is this type of ardent support for his colleagues that has made him the him the soul of the movement.

Civil rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng at his sentencing. August 4, 2016

And in a legal system where the Chinese government essentially determines the crime and sentence of any activist regardless of evidence, such a leadership role would result in a charge that could lead to a substantial prison term.  But Jiang was only charged with – and pled guilty to – the lowest level of subversion under Article 105 of China’s Criminal Law: inciting subversion of state power; a crime that carries a prison term of three years maximum.  Some of Jiang’s colleagues – those caught up in the 709 Crackdown – received harsher sentences for actually subverting state power under Article 105, not just inciting it: Zhou Shifeng received seven years, Hu Shigen seven and a half years.  And more recently, two other activists, Lee Ming-che and Peng Yuhua, both arrested after the 709 Crackdown but still part of the Chinese government’s attack on free speech, were each charged with – and pled guilty – to Article 105’s subversion of state power and were sentenced to five years and seven years, respectively.

Jiang Tianyong, second from left, and proudly standing with other activists outside of a detention center.

But make no mistake, Jiang has suffered just as much as these other activists while in detention.  According to the China Human Rights Lawyer Concern Group, Jiang was repeatedly denied access to his own lawyers and allegations of torture have emerged.    He was demonized in the state-run press and social media outlets, and, although his own lawyers could never gain access to Jiang, the state-run CCTV was able to interview him in which he “admitted” to fabricating allegations of torture of his colleague Xie Yang.  After being held incommunicado for over nine months and under who knows what kinds of conditions, on August 22, 2017, Jiang pled guilty to the crime of inciting subversion.  In his televised, in-court confession, Jiang called upon his fellow rights defenders and rights lawyers to learn from his experiences.  A shockingly far cry from Jiang’s Twitter description“A lawyer who was born at just the right time; a lawyer who’s willing to take any case; a lawyer hated by a small political clique; a lawyer who wants to win the respect of regular folk; a lawyer who kept going even after being stripped of his law license.” (translation courtesy of China Change) – causing many, including his wife, to strongly believe that his confession was forced.

Cultural Revolution Poster: “Imperialists and reactionaries are all paper tigers”

Although much of Jiang’s ordeal calls into question the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law, respect for human rights and why it must continue to abuse its own people, another deeply troubling trend has emerged: the Chinese government’s anti-foreign rhetoric.  In reporting on the Jiang’s sentencing last month, the state-run Legal Daily blamed the “foreign, anti-China” forces influencing Jiang for much of his behavior.  It is that paranoia of anything foreign that is the most dangerous to the current world order.  With the U.S. retreating from its position of global, moral leader, China is seeking to rise and promote its type of leadership.  From the trial of Jiang Tianyong, that moral leadership model seeks to create societies that are not just unresponsive to its own people, but shut off from connections with the rest of the world.  But it is those connections between cultures and people that have long been a driving force of the post-WWII model and have helped to maintain the peace in much of the world these last 75 years.

But in blaming these elusive, foreign, anti-China forces, the Chinese government ignores the real reason why these civil rights activists exist: the injustices in Chinese society.  It is Jiang’s own life that is a testament as to why the Chinese government’s efforts to suppress these civil rights activists will ultimately fail.  For a long time Jiang was just an ordinary guy; after graduating from college, Jiang was a teacher for almost 10 years. But in 2004, wanting to pursue greater justice for others, he gave up teaching to become a civil rights lawyer, passing the bar exam in 2005.  People like Jiang are not motivated by foreign forces or other entities; they are motivated to correct the injustices and sufferings of others to make their society better.  The Chinese government cannot stop people from feeling that way and the real question is – why would they want to.

How Many Times Can the World Turn its Head…..The Case for Wang Quanzhang

By , August 30, 2017

To call China’s human rights lawyers “battered” is an understatement.  These lawyers are victims of the Chinese government’s deliberate and brutal pursuit to render them extinct.  And that is why the nomination of Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang for the Dutch government’s Human Rights Tulip award is so significant and why readers should vote for him (public voting is open here until September 6, 2017).

Wang is perhaps the quintessential human rights lawyer.  Even before graduating from Shandong University Law School in 2000, he was already representing some of Chinese society’s most vulnerable: members of the banned spiritual sect of Falun Gong.  From there, he extended his practice to assist farmers whose land was being confiscated, criminal defendants and other civil rights activist.  Throughout, he received constant pressure from the Chinese government to discontinue his practice and in 2013 was taken into custody by Chinese police merely for defending his client in court.  But instead of ending his advocacy, the Chinese government’s pressure only emboldened him. Wang criticized the Chinese government in a series of blog posts under the pen name Gao Feng and in 2014, traveled to Heilongjiang to protest the illegal detention of other human rights lawyers.  But for Wang, practicing law was not enough.  He also sought to elevate the legal profession in China and joined forces with a small foreign NGO in Beijing – Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (“China Action”) – to teach and support other human rights lawyers throughout China on how to effectively advocate in a one-party dictatorship.

Photo courtesy of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, July 4, 2016

While the rest of the world might celebrate Wang’s commitment to justice, in China, Wang is considered a villain – at least according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  It is his work that the CCP fears as a threat to its one-party rule and is intent on destroying.  On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government launched a national offensive against its human rights lawyers, simultaneously detaining over 300 lawyers and activist across the country (known colloquially as the “709 Crackdown”).  Wang was caught up in the persecution and on August 4, 2015 was detained for suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting subversion of state power.”  Since then – for over two years – he has been held incommunicado, with his lawyers and his wife denied any access to him.  Ironically, the rights that Wang has long sought for his own clients – the right to meet with an attorney, the right to a fair trial, the right to a speedy trial in accordance with Chinese law – is being denied to him as he remains isolated in prison.

For sure, China’s human rights lawyers have been under assault for close to a decade now.  But as Professor Eva Pils notes in a recent article, the 709 Crackdown is much more severe, with new and frightening measures taken by the Chinese government.  From the inception of the Crackdown, the Chinese government has vilified these lawyers by name in the press (including naming Wang as a ringleader) and refer to them as a “criminal syndicate.” It has also changed its rhetoric – no longer are human rights lawyers a threat to social stability; instead, because of the influence of “foreign forces,” specifically the use of foreign NGO funds, the Chinese government presents these lawyers as a national security risk. And more recently, Pils notes that there appears to be at least six detained human rights lawyers who have been forced to take medication while in detention.  But not for any current medical condition.  Instead, it appears to Pils that the Chinese government’s use of forced medication has had a physiological impact on the detainees and is being used more to alter the personalities of the human rights defenders with the hope that they do not continue to practice once they are released.

Wang Quanzhang’s wife and son. Neither has seen Wang for the last two years,. Photo courtesy of RFA

And this is another reason why Wang Quanzhuang should be awarded the Human Rights Tulip.  China – the world’s second largest economy – offers another way by which to order society.  A world where human rights take a back seat to economics and alleged national security issues.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world appears to be largely playing along.  As Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo laid unnecessarily dying in a Chinese prison hospital, imprisoned for his speech, not a single world leader made a public peep about it at the G20 Summit that was happening at the same time.  As Beijing dismantles Hong Kong’s democracy, Western democracies largely remain quiet.  In May 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignorantly stated that promoting human rights “really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”   In June 2017, Greece – which has been able to economically recover largely through the support of China – vetoed the European Union’s condemnation of China’s human rights record.  And this has only been the last four months.  With the nomination of Wang Quanzhuang for the Human Rights Tulip, the question arises – how many times can the world turn its head and pretend that it just doesn’t see?   Is this who we really are?  If the answer is no, then please vote for Wang Quanzhuang here.  From the top three, the Minster of Foreign Affairs of the Dutch Government will choose a winner.

Without A Tomb To Sweep: The Death of Liu Xiaobo

By , July 16, 2017

2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo

This past Saturday, China Law & Policy marked the 8th anniversary of its founding.  But a commemorative birthday piece seemed inappropriate with the news that a few days earlier China’s only Noble Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, died in police custody.

Since the founding of this blog, Liu Xiaobo has been in jail. His crime?  His speech.  And in examining the Chinese government’s cruel response to Liu’s death, it is this speech that this aspiring superpower continues to fear.  Liu Xiaobo was not a murderer, a terrorist, and or even a revolutionary.  He was merely a Chinese activist, academic and public intellectual that for close to 30 years, used his pen to call upon the Chinese government to live up to its commitment to human rights; a commitment that China has agreed to by signing on to certain international treaties; a commitment that was written into the amended Chinese Constitution in 2004.

Liu’s most recent prison sentence wasn’t his first.  In 1989, Liu, who came back to China from a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University to support the students in Tiananmen Square, was sentenced to almost two years in jail for partaking in the movement.  When he was released, Liu lost his university position and his writings were

Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) at the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square. Later, Liu would be credited with brokering a peace with the troops to allow the couple of hundred of students left on the Square on June 4 to leave without bloodshed.

banned in China.  In 1996 Liu was  imprisoned for three years, this time in a Re-Education Through Labor camp, for a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  Then, in late 2008, Liu co-drafted a document known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  Nothing terribly revolutionary. But for that, Liu was arrested, tried for inciting subversion of state power and, on Christmas Day 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  When he died last Thursday, Liu had only had about two years left on his sentence.  He hadn’t been heard from since his 2009 conviction.

But the silencing of Liu Xiaobo for the past eight years was not enough for the current regime.  When he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government vehemently criticized the choice and placed his wife, Liu Xia, under unlawful house arrest, house arrest that continues to today.  The Chinese internet was censored for any mention of Liu and the state-controlled media was not allowed to report on his prize.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times.

And even though, according to his wife, Liu was diagnosed by prison doctors with hepatitis B as early as 2010, his hepatitis was allowed to fester into liver cancer.  It appears that that Liu was only given proper medical treatment when it was too late – when the antiviral drugs that slows down hepatitis B from becoming liver cancer would no longer work, when embolization of the tumor would no longer be effective and when surgery could no longer be used to save a life.  It was only when the cancer became truly incurable that the Chinese government permitted Liu Xiaobo to go to a hospital – under constant guard – and die with his wife by his side. But even in his dying days, he was still denied dignity; the state-controlled media released pictures of Liu in the hospital, maintaining that the state had only given him the best care.  They would not let him go abroad as he requested, likely fearing that he would use his final breaths to criticize the Chinese government.

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the empty chair where Liu Xiaobo was to sit.

With his death on Thursday, the Chinese regime rushed to hold a funeral so that Liu’s friends and admirers could not make it.  By Saturday morning, Liu Xiaobo’s wife buried his ashes at sea, likely at the demand of the Chinese government so that it could ensure that a tombstone would not be erected and potentially serve as a pilgrimage site. Liu’s brother was paraded on state-run TV stating that the quick sea burial was the family’s wishes. Even in his death, Liu was used as a propaganda tool, with pictures of his shell-shocked wife standing by the coffin and mechanically lowering his ashes into the ocean.  Since Thursday, 1.4 billion Chinese people have experienced a news blackout on anything related to Liu Xiaobo. International news channels were pulled from the air, the state-run media has been ordered not to report on Liu’s passing and Chinese censors have been in overdrive, taking down posts with RIP and candle emojis as the Chinese people attempt to publicly show their respect to their countryman.

Thousands of mourners in Hong Kong hold a march in honor of Liu Xiaobo. (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)

China is the second largest economy in the world and most believe that it will soon supplant the United States as the Asia regional superpower.  But yet this is how it responds to the death of one critique in its midst.  A man whose only weapons were words and thoughts.  If China still wonders why it can’t successfully project soft power internationally, this is it.  While the Chinese government protests that it treated Liu with utmost care in prison, provided as much medical care as possible at the end, and permitted his family to hold a funeral, it still can’t ignore the fact that it imprisoned – and essentially killed – a man for his thoughts.  The last Noble Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was Carl von Ossietky, the 1935 winner who, in 1938, died in a Nazi concentration camp.  It’s never a good thing to be compared to the Nazi regime.

But even more troubling is that the Chinese regime’s suppression of Liu Xiaobo’s speech – both in life and in death – reflects a government that does not trust its own people.  Is Liu’s words going to cause revolution in the streets?  Probably not.  But yet they cannot be heard.  And in recent years, that distrust has only worsened.  Two years ago, the Chinese government conducted a nationwide crackdown on China’s civil rights lawyers, lawyers who use the legal system to protect people’s legal rights; nothing particularly revolutionary about that tactic.  And any civil society organization that becomes too successful, is shut down.  The Chinese people are left with no outlet to shape their own society and demand that their government live up to its ideals. Instead, the Chinese government distrusts anyone who it believes dissents.  But as Liu Xiaobo noted in the speech that was read at his Noble Prize ceremony, that enemy mentality will be a setback to progress:

Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.

Impromptu memorial for Liu Xiaobo in Flushing, Queens, NYC (Courtesy of Facebook)

And Liu’s words and thoughts are not just ripe for the Chinese government right now but for all of us.  Especially as the current United States Administration focuses less on human rights.  On Thursday, President Trump issued a pathetic statement on Liu’s death through his press secretary. And only after he gushed about the greatness of China’s president Xi Jinping a mere hours after Liu’s passing.  It wasn’t just China who lost a hero on Thursday, but the world.  And the world needs the ideals of Liu Xiaobo now more than ever.  May you rest in peace Liu Xiaobo and may we find the courage to continue your struggle both in China and in the world at large.

The Trump-Xi Summit – Making Plans to Make Plans

By , April 11, 2017

Presidents Trump and Xi Jingping at Mar-a-Lago, April 6, 2017 (Photo courtesy of JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

To say that the U.S. air strike on Syria overshadowed the Trump-Xi summit last week would be an understatement.  The event basically eclipsed the two day conference, pushing the meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies to second page news.

But even without the Syrian air strike, the summit would not have created much news.  In fact, in the way Trump and Xi each described the outcome of the meeting – deepening their friendship  and making progress in their relationship – it seemed more reminiscent of a marriage proposal in Elizabethan England than a discussion between two powerful countries that have been having a difficult relationship.

But did anything substantive come out of the summit?  The South China Morning Post has a great review of the issues discussed – and not discussed – at last week’s summit.  But here are some highlights:

Trade

At Mar-a-Lago last week (Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Trump did raise the issue of trade and, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump “underscored the need for China to take concrete steps to level the playing field for American workers, stressing repeatedly the need for reciprocal market access.”  But it is unclear if the statement resonated with the Chinese delegation.  And, contrary to some pundits’ expectations, Xi did not come to Mar-a-Lago with a peace offering, namely proposing job-creating investments in the United States.

Instead, the two sides announced the 100-Day Plan, a policy to completely overhaul their trade relationship within 100 days.  While most countries take years to rebalance a trade relationship, Trump and Xi are going to do it in a mere 100 days.  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross correctly noted that this approach would be a “very big sea change” but offered no explanation exactly how all of this can occur in a matter of three-and-a-half months or even why it should; why such a rush to recalibrate the most important trade relationship in the world is a good idea.

North Korea

While both countries acknowledged North Korea as a growing nuclear threat, no middle ground was met.  It appears that Trump continued to warn China that if it did not do more, the U.S. would follow its own course of action, and with the Syrian attack in the backdrop, one can only imagine what Xi was thinking in all this.  China’s foreign minister however noted that if North Korea ceases its nuclear program, then military action in the region should also cease.  Interestingly, this was the suggestion that Beijing made last month: to halt the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills to induce North Korea to coming back to the negotiating table.  The U.S. did not listen and instead continued with the drills.

Human Rights

Just say no to human rights

Neither side mentioned whether human rights was raised during the summit and, given the agendas of these two men, it likely was not.  But in a White House-approved statement after the summit, Tillerson again used the vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) to describe the U.S.-China relationship: one of “mutual interest.”  For the Chinese, this is not rhetoric but words that come with baggage.  Mutual interest is often used by China to scold other countries when those countries question China’s domestic policies.  Usually used in relation to China’s interest in Tibet and Taiwan, it can also be used in defense of foreign criticism of policies that seek to viciously stamp out civil society. So expect human rights to play a low role in Trump’s policy toward China.

State Visit & U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue

Trump – already big in China

Xi invited Trump to a state visit in China this year and Trump said yes.  But more importantly, the U.S. and China established a framework by which to hold high-level talks, the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue.  Make no mistake, this is not a new idea.  Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. and China would periodically host the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the Human Rights Dialogue and on occasion, the Legal Experts Dialogue.  It appears that Trump and Xi are going to replace these dialogues with the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue (date yet to be announced) which will have four tracks: a diplomatic and security dialogue; a comprehensive economic dialogue; a law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and a social and cultures issues dialogue.  Again, human rights was not named as a specific issue and if it is unclear if this issue will merely be squished into the social and cultural issue dialogue.

So in the end, not many outcomes from the Trump-Xi summit.  Perhaps what is more telling though is what was not said at the summit.  No mention of Taiwan, no mention of human rights and no mention of increased Chinese investment in the U.S. to create jobs.  But check back in 100 days.

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