Public Confessions Part of a “Divide & Conquer” Strategy

More than a year after Chinese authorities launched a crackdown on rights lawyers and activists, which has come to be known as Black Friday or the “709 crackdown” for the date it started, four of those detained have been tried and sentenced to between three years of a suspended sentence and seven and a half years in prison on charges of subversion. During their highly publicized and televised trials, all four defendants—Gou Hongguo, Zhai Yanmin, Hu Shigen, and Zhou Shifeng—pleaded guilty, though many observers believe the pleas were coerced. The public nature of the trials was in line with a recent spate of televised confessions by lawyers and activists detained for their rights-oriented work. Before the trials, authorities announced that , another prominent lawyer detained in the Black Friday roundup, had been released just after Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television released a confession-style interview with her.

In the Washington Post, exiled activist Chen Guangcheng wrote about how and why authorities obtain and publicize confessions from detainees:

Both from my own experience and from speaking with other activists who have been held in detention, I know that the authorities’ attempts at extracting confessions usually begin with threats: threats to one’s ability to work (confiscating a license to practice law, for instance) or threats to one’s family or loved ones. In the latter case, they might start by threatening to prevent a child from attending school or getting a job, though suggestions of physical harm are not off the table.

If prisoners do not bow under this psychological pressure, often delivered over days or weeks while the victims are tied to a chair, the authorities might move to physical torture, including chaining detainees to a “tiger bench” in excruciating positions for days and sometimes weeks, applying electric shocks to their genitals, jolting and beating them with electric police batons, or placing them in long solitary confinement, to name a few. Some activists have been so traumatized as to be unable to speak after being released from detention. And in the most horrific cases — such as those of Cao Shunli, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche and Li Wangyang, people who have devoted their lives to improving their country — only bodies have come out, battered and bruised, with their families left to search in vain for answers.

To a certain extent, these videos are effective in seeding doubt among those they target. When you see a friend on national TV denouncing a long, collaborative work relationship, it can be hard to stay focused on the reality behind the scene. The online chatter in China debates the veracity of the statements, the words and phrases analyzed for clues to the confessor’s true opinion. In the process, trust can be chipped away, as old alliances are called into question. This is precisely what the regime seeks: to divide, and thus conquer and destroy, the growing movement among the Chinese people to demand their rights. [Source]

Wang’s lawyer husband, Bao Longjun, was also said to be released on bail on August 5, but neither one has been seen by family or friends since state media announced their release. Similarly, authorities have announced the release of both legal assistant Zhao Wei and her lawyer Ren Quanniu, but both are believed to still be under some form of government detention:

In her video confession, Wang Yu denounced international human rights awards she had been given, saying, “my attitude is to not recognize it, identify with it or accept it. This award is just another way for them to use me to attack and smear the Chinese government.” The American Bar Association awarded Wang the inaugural International Human Rights Award in absentia on August 6, expressing concerns that her statements upon her announced release had been made under duress:

“By every measure, Wang Yu merits this award,” said ABA President Paulette Brown of Morristown, New Jersey, at the presentation program. Brown said it was important that the ABA go ahead with giving the award to Wang, and she noted that ABA officials have not been able to confirm the circumstances of Wang’s release and confession.

“We should all be reminded of the critical role that lawyers play in assuring democracy around the world,” said Brown, who credited Wang for representing some of China’s most “marginalized and vulnerable communities,” particularly women and children. Wang “is symbolic of China’s human rights community,” said Brown.

The ABA does not have confirmation that the confession came from her, an ABA spokesperson said about Wang’s statements, noting that a number of experts have suggested it’s a propaganda ploy by the Chinese government. “We’re continuing to monitor the situation,” said the spokesperson. [Source]

As the ABA bestowed the award, a group of Chinese activists living in the U.S. issued a statement supporting the award and condemning the government’s position that the detained are merely pawns of the West, translated by China Change:

These lawyers and activists are part of a long tradition of Chinese citizens who fought for their basic human and political rights: the Xidan Democracy Wall, the Tiananmen Movement, the opposition movement of the 1990s, the rights defense movement since the early 2000s, the New Citizens Movement, and the struggle for as represented by China’s small but brave band of human rights lawyers and activists.

They are, together, the rock of China, and the salt of the earth.

As ludicrous as these show trials were, this week’s performance was not confined to the courtroom. Over the past week, a narrative of an American-led international conspiracy has been propagated at a hysterical pitch, on social media, on CCTV, and in the front pages of the Party’s mouthpieces. The regime has claimed that these lawyers and activists are nothing but pawns of the United States and the West in general who, scheming for a “color revolution,” want to destabilize China and overthrow the government.

This war of propaganda does not just aim at fanning nationalist, anti-American sentiment. It also aims at intimidating the U. S. (which, by the way, has been too accommodating to China at the expense of undermining its own values), and the international community. They want the rest of the world to scurry off at the very word “subversion”; they want to see that Chinese citizens who embrace dignity, freedom, and justice get no support, and will no longer even dare to seek support from the outside world — whether lawyers, journalists, workers, parents, netizens, farmers, or even the Communist Party’s own cadres, for that matter. [Source]

The “war of propaganda” mentioned in the statement has been in full view in recent videos promoted by various official accounts and a Global Times piece blaming the lawyers’ actions on the infiltration of Western ideology in Chinaa frequent refrain under the administration of Xi Jinping:

Lawyers advocate for the law. But a few of them went the other side of the law, and at one time won a certain degree of response on the Internet. This reflects how seriously the Western ideology has been infiltrating the country. Confronting the country’s basic political system, and inciting people to resist the country’s laws, the lawyers believe they were acting through freedom of expression. It is ridiculous.

If we let such ill trends spread in China, it will be like letting the country slip into the waves of the West’s “political transformation” of the non-Western world. A Chinese nation that is on its way of rejuvenation will go astray and face huge political uncertainties.

The convictions of the four activists show the Chinese law’s defiance of their Western support. The radicals who had dreamed of relying on Western support better give up such fantasies. [Source]

(Global Times has itself been the subject of media scrutiny recently with some asking how seriously we should take the publication that Quartz called “China’s hawkish, belligerent state tabloid.”)

The Chinese government was quick to denounce statements of support for the lawyers from the U.S. government. From Reuters:

On Thursday, a State Department spokesman said the United States was concerned about the convictions made on “apparently politically motivated charges”, and called for the release the lawyers and activists.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the “U.S. accusations are groundless” and urged Washington to “respect the facts”.

“Chinese judicial authorities deal with related cases in accordance with law so that the legitimate rights and interests of defendants could be effectively protected,” state news agency Xinhua on Saturday cited Hua as saying. [Source]

In a discussion on Chinoiresie of the meaning of “rule of law” (yifa zhiguo) under Xi Jinping, Joshua Rosenzweig notes that Xi has emphasized “unified thinking” around issues of law and justice, which helps explain the harsh and public crackdown on the work of rights lawyers:

Another reason for the prominence of ‘yifa zhiguo’ under Xi Jinping is that China’s current leadership is trying to restore the party-state’s ideological dominance by flooding the public discourse with its own messages and squeezing out any alternative usages. The promotion of ‘yifa zhiguo’ in the 1990s coincided with the re-emergence of a relatively autonomous arena for discussion and debate of public affairs in which matters of law and justice formed an important part. For a while, ideas about human rights, procedural justice and constitutionalism flourished and shaped critical notions of how law might function in China. Recognising the challenge posed by these alternative ideas, Xi Jinping has taken steps to isolate and excise these views from the public discourse and ‘unify thinking’ around orthodox views of law and justice. [Source]

In the same discussion, Susan Trevaskis adds:

To win back the hearts and minds of people whose trust in the law had been seriously eroded by party corruption, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang began talking about accountability, transparency, clean government and so on. But this new platform required a substantial reinvigoration of centralised Party power in order to regain the capacity to limit corruption at the local level on the one hand, and to deal with perceived threats to national security on the other. Hence, we find Xi Jinping bringing Party supremacy back into political fashion. The ideological role of ‘yifa zhiguo’ in Xi’s China, gives the Party rhetorical permission to govern China in such a way that it can deal with disunity, dissent and crime using the weapon of the law. [Source]

Additional trials of more than a dozen Black Friday detainees are expected in the near future, including lawyers , Xie Yanyi, and :

The BBC interviewed Xie Yanyi’s wife, Yuan Shanshan, who traveled to the Tianjin court where the other lawyers were tried in order to find out information about her husband, whom she has not seen in over a year.