The Case Against Gao Yu

71-year-old journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to seven years in prison on Friday for leaking an internal memo on “seven perils” to Party rule to foreign media. She maintains her innocence, and will appeal. The case against Gao reportedly hinged on her own confession, which was televised on state broadcaster CCTV without her knowledge and which she says was made only after investigators threatened her son. The broadcast was part of a recent pattern that has concerned lawyers and rights groups. From The Guardian’s Tania Branigan:

, 71, has denied leaking abroad, and her lawyer said that she would appeal against her seven-year sentence. He said the prosecution lacked evidence and had based its case on her confession, which she said was made under pressure because her son was also in custody at the time.

[… Lawyer ] said the court excluded testimony from the founder of the Mirror Media Group – which first published the text, known as Document No 9 – denying that Gao sent it to him.

“We think there isn’t enough evidence to prove that Gao has leaked the document. There isn’t physical evidence and there is no witness. Ho Pin, who the prosecutor alleged to have received the document from Gao, has given written testimony that Gao didn’t send him the document.”

The Mirror Media Group has reiterated publicly that Gao did not leak the text to it. Gao’s statement of “deep remorse”, which she said she agreed to because she feared retaliations against her son, was broadcast on television without her knowledge. [Source]

Another lawyer, , pointed out to German state broadcaster that “according to Chinese law, evidence obtained under duress must be thrown out and must not be considered for passing a verdict.”

Ho Pin claims, according to a tweet by Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee, that he actually received the document from a senior Party official. A further issue is whether Document No. 9 is really a state secret or not. Shang addressed this in an interview translated by China Media Project:

Explaining the News: The crime she has been accused of is “illegally providing state secrets beyond [China’s] borders,” but can you really regard the Chinese Communist Party’s internal documents concerning ideology as “state secrets”?

Shang Baojun: This is something we’ve debated before. Investigative organs determined through the Beijing Municipal Office for the Protection of State Secrets (北京市保密局) that the document in question was a state document of a confidential nature (机密级). Of course, we don’t agree with this conclusion. And we’ve appealed for a new determination higher up from the PRC’s National Administration for the Protection of State Secrets, including on the question of whether [the document] can be construed as a “state secret” — and then further what, if any, level of “state secret.” China has three levels of secrecy: top secret (绝密级), confidential (机密级) and secret (秘密级). If any of these are leaked, there are subject to different sentences.

Regardless of what the determination is, we do not believe that a document from the Chinese Communist Party providing guidance on propaganda and ideology, or direction on the main theme (主旋律) can be construed as a “state secret.” [Source]

In yesterday’s update from CDT, former high-level aide Bao Tong agreed that Gao would have had the right and even duty to reveal the document, while Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin explained the “over-broad and open ended” definition of state secrets which makes them “the weapon of choice to silence critics, dissenters, journalists and party foe.”

While the punishment is not as harsh as it might have been—leaking state secrets overseas can carry anything up to a life sentence—it is heavier in light of Gao’s age. From Josh Chin at The Wall Street Journal:

The of the journalist comes amid a sustained crackdown on criticism and independent political activity in which dozens of activists, lawyers, scholars and others have been detained or jailed, in some cases for unusually long periods. Besides Ms. Gao, authorities have prosecuted two other elderly dissidents: 74-year-old Yiu Man-tin, a publisher of political books who was sentenced to 10 years for smuggling, and 81-year-old Huang Zerong, a writer better known as Tie Liu who was fined and given a suspended 2½-year sentence for illegal business dealings.

[…] In the past, it was rare for Chinese authorities to detain or jail elderly critics, who were traditionally given quiet warnings when they crossed political red lines.

[…] “Seven years is a long time for someone who’s 71 years old,” said Maya Wang, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, adding that dissidents have been hit with a progression of lengthier sentences in the past two years. “This basically surpasses any kind of crackdown we’ve seen since the early 1990s,” she said. [Source]

Other groups have also spoken out. Amnesty described the sentence as “an affront to justice and an attack on freedom of expression”; Human Rights in China said that it “once again exposes the hollowness of the official slogan of ruling the country in accordance with the law.” The Hong Kong Journalists Association, Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong, International Federation of Journalists, and Committee to Protect Journalists have all expressed concern or condemnation, while The Guardian reported that U.S. and E.U. officials criticized the judgment outside the court. CPJ’s Bob Dietz presented Gao’s case as a cautionary tale for the International Olympics Committee as it considers Beijing’s application for the 2022 Winter Games:

Gao Yu was right, I was wrong. Gao, who was handed a seven-year prison sentence in a Beijing court on Friday, and I met at a conference organized by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers in Paris in April 2008, a few months before the Beijing Olympic Games were to get underway. CPJ had worked hard to publicize the mistake made by the International Olympics Committee in awarding China the Games in the first place.

[…] But in private conversations I would admit to some degree of hope that China would loosen up after the Games ended and the visiting journalists had gone home. Though the government did follow through on some of its promises about Internet access and freedom for visiting journalists to report more freely, those permissions eventually melted away.

As happens at conferences like that, I met Gao in the restaurant of the hotel where we were all staying. I mentioned my feelings that China would benefit from hosting the Games, at least in terms of loosening some of the restrictions on media. She was quite frank when she told me I was deluding myself. China’s media policies were not going to change, and I was naïve to think that they would, or even that they could as long as the Communist Party was adamant about maintaining sole control of state power. [Source]

The director general of Deutsche Welle, to which Gao had been a contributor, said he was “appalled” by the sentence:

[Peter] Limbourg announced that, in reaction to the harsh sentencing of Gao Yu, DW will suspend its negotiations with the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV on proposed technical cooperation in the area of art and culture.

Limbourg said, however, that he is convinced that dialogue with China is the only viable way to communicate ones own position and convictions and to bring about change through engagement.

“We do not want to close all channels of communication. However, a necessary prerequisite for future co-productions will be a demonstrable improvement in the attitude of the Chinese government towards critical journalists, bloggers and people with different views,” said Limbourg. He emphasized that DW will, “continue not only to closely track the fate of Gao Yu. It will also continue to closely monitor others in China who, due to similar allegations, are being persecuted or imprisoned.” [Source]

DW’s Philipp Bilsky wrote that “the verdict is a clear signal to all those who are critical of the Chinese government,” referring to the cases of detained rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, imprisoned Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, and the five feminist activists who were recently released but remain under the shadow of investigation.

For months Beijing repeatedly cracked down on critics. A recent example being the arrest of five feminists who had wanted to protest against sexual harassment on public transport. The protesters were released on bail, but their legal cases are still pending. That case seemed particularly absurd because the Communist Party likes to portray itself as a champion of women’s rights. Obviously only one thing counts for the Chinese government: Stifling any form of dissent.

[…] The verdict against Gao Yu fits into this pattern. The Chinese government clearly wants to quickly suppress everything that could be a challenge to President Xi Jinpin’s “Chinese Dream.” The ice in China has become very thin for those who have a critical point of view. [Source]