Heavy Punishment and the Ongoing Crackdown in China
A recent string of long prison terms for inciting subversion has been widely seen as demonstrating the increasingly inhospitable climate for political dissent in China. Bob Dietz of the Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, stated that “the severe sentence given to Chen Xi for online writing indicates that Chinese authorities are tightening their control of dissent …. Penalties against government critics appear to be growing harsher.” Siweiluozi, however, notes that these long sentences are dictated by sentencing regulations for those with past convictions:
I don’t disagree that the recent sentences are heavy. I’m less convinced, however, that the sentences themselves are clear evidence of a crackdown on dissent in China. This is because the length of the sentences in each of these cases can be attributed in large part to mandated penalty-intensification under Chinese law ….
Note that I’m not saying that there is no crackdown underway or that the punishments that were handed down are justified. I believe that China’s use of criminal sanctions against “inciting subversion” is a clear violation of international human rights law protecting free expression.
What I am saying is simply that Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, and Chen Xi were given heavy punishments not simply because of any ongoing crackdown but more because of their persistent and long-standing political activism, for which each of them has spent a considerable amount of the past two decades behind bars. I think it gives us a better understanding of how the government cracks down on dissent to recognize that it’s precisely these kinds of veteran activists whom the authorities want “off the grid” and that the legal system is designed to enable them to do so.