Jiang Tianyong and the Hunt for Hostile Foreign Forces

Two weeks ago, rights activist and former lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years in prison for inciting subversion. This followed a trial which supporters dismissed as "choreographed," carried out to the accompaniment of apparently orchestrated online commentary, as well as a suspected forced confession on state TV in March. Amnesty International’s William Nee told AFP at the time that Jiang’s case "epitomises many of the worrying aspects of the lawyers’ crackdown […:] harassment of family members, not letting the accused access their lawyer, prosecution based on charges that don’t comply with international standards, blocking the public from attending."

After the sentencing, a panel of U.N. human rights advisors protested that Jiang’s trial "clearly fell short of international standards and his conviction represents an unfair and arbitrary punishment of a human rights lawyer and defender, whose only crime was to exercise his rights to free speech and to defend human rights." NYU law scholar Jerome Cohen, a friend of Jiang’s, wrote that "his prosecution/persecution has been a tragic farce from the day he was detained a year ago." A Washington Post editorial similarly commented that it exemplified China’s approach to rule of law, in which "the Communist Party holds the upper hand and crushes individuals who dare to question its monopoly on power."

At China Law and Policy this week, Elizabeth M. Lynch focused on another aspect of the case:

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 , 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. [Source]

The Washington Post’s editorial similarly argued that the authorities have counterproductively misidentified the root of Jiang’s and others’ activism:

To not just round up dissidents but stalk their lawyers, too, is a harsh tactic, to be sure. But it has failed to squelch dissent; even as they grow more single-minded, China’s leaders can’t or won’t grasp the simple fact that dissent is not a passing whim to be eradicated by more police and arrests. It is a profound and enduring response to tyranny. Mr. Jiang was described as the "soul of the 709 rescue effort" by Chinese rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, and there will be more souls to follow in his footsteps.

Mr. Xi declared in his report at the party congress that China would "take center stage in the world." He may shoulder his way onto that stage. But as long as he practices rule by fear and force, he will earn little respect in the spotlight. [Source]

Supposed collusion with "hostile foreign forces" has been a focus in several recent political prosecutions, including those of Jiang’s fellow . One, Xie Yang, was videoed confessing (under suspected coercion) to having been "brainwashed" during training sessions in Hong Kong and South Korea, and urging others to cut off contact with foreign media. Interviews with foreign media and acceptance of overseas funding were also a focal point in the prosecution of Jiang’s former colleague Li Heping. Similar points arose in the cases of Zhou Shifeng and Wang Yu.

Beyond the crackdown on rights lawyers, Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che said in his final statement at trial in September, again under suspected coercion, that he had been led astray by "biased and malicious reports about the Chinese mainland by media in the West and Taiwan." Lee was later sentenced to five years in prison for subversion. Suspicion of outside meddling has also arisen in trials of labor organizers and interrogations of feminist activists. A series of videos that accuse Western forces of trying to engineer a color revolution in China has repeatedly been promoted by officially affiliated social media accounts, sometimes focusing on the attendance of diplomats at politically sensitive . The tentacle-marks of foreign conspiracy against China have also been seen everywhere from the Panama Papers leaks to a graduation-day proposal by two lesbian students in Beijing.