Christmas as Usual: CCP Detains Human Rights Defenders

While many look forward to relaxing during the December holiday season, the CCP typically leverages foreign distraction during this period to crack down on Chinese human rights defenders. Among those targeted in a recent wave of persecutions are prominent lawyers, activists, and journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, barred from leaving or entering China, or prosecuted in closed-door trials. PEN America described how the Chinese government has a history of locking up dissidents during December in order to evade international scrutiny

Expert commentators have long warned that Chinese authorities tend to pursue criminal trials against prominent dissidents in late December, when many members of the international community—such as diplomats, journalists, NGO workers, and human rights activists—are out-of-office or otherwise distracted with Christmas and New Year’s. Among the human rights community, this repressive tactic from Chinese authorities is so common it is referred to as a “Christmas surprise.”

In 2009, prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, was tried on charges of inciting subversion on December 23, 2009, and sentenced to eleven years imprisonment on December 25 (Christmas). In 2017, human rights activist Wu Gan was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on Christmas, and that same day, human rights lawyer Xie Yang was declared guilty of inciting subversion. In 2018, human rights lawyer  was tried for subversion on December 26. In 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was arrested for critically reporting on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, was sentenced to four years imprisonment on December 28, 2020, and two days after, on December 30, ten Hong Kong activists who had been arrested when trying to flee to Taiwan were given prison sentences ranging from seven months to two years. [Source]

Two notable figures likely facing imminent trials are Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, members of the New Citizens Movement that authorities began hunting down in December of 2019. The two have been denied permission to meet with their families or lawyers and have reportedly been tortured during their two years in detention, leading to significant deterioration in their health. Their family members have expressed concern that the government may detain them indefinitely. China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) described the history and reasons behind the government’s prosecution of the pair:

Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi are human rights lawyers and leading figures in the “New Citizens Movement”, a civil society movement which has attempted to popularize a new form of civic engagement within China. In early December 2019, both men met with colleagues at an informal gathering of civil society advocates in the coastal city of Xiamen; in the days and months after the meeting, Chinese security forces apprehended many of the attendees. Ding Jiaxi was apprehended December 26, 2019 and Xu Zhiyong was apprehended in February 2020. Both Ding and Xu spent long periods of time incommunicado before being formally arrested; neither man had access to a lawyer until January 2021. Both men have alleged that they have been tortured while in custody. 

The indictments against Ding and Xu accuse them of forming the “Citizens Movement,” creating a Telegram group chat, and organizing the December 2019 Xiamen meeting. The indictments also point to both men’s writing—such as essays and articles—as “evidence” of their crimes. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued opinions deeming the detentions of Xu and Ding to be arbitrary under international law, and has called for their immediate release. [Source]

On International Human Rights Day, December 10, Chinese police prevented numerous human rights activists and lawyers from leaving their homes by physically locking them inside. That same day, the EU delegation to China held an event to discuss human rights in the country, and Chinese authorities reportedly shut down an entire road on which EU diplomats were expected to pick up one activist for the event. Tang Jitian was one rights attorney prevented from attending the event, and many fear that he has now been detained, as his whereabouts are currently unknown. 

Other prominent human rights defenders have recently been detained. In Hong Kong, Cambridge-educated barrister and journalist Dr. Margaret Ng, a recipient of the International Bar Association’s award for outstanding contributions to human rights, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly conspiring to distribute seditious materials, along with journalists at Stand News. RSF Press Freedom laureate Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, marked the one-year anniversary of her sentencing on Tuesday. After years in pretrial detention, human rights lawyers Li Yuhan, Qin Yongpei, and Hao Jinsong potentially face new criminal trials for defending other lawyers and speaking out against corruption and abuses in Hong Kong. Veteran attorneys Lin Qilei and Liang Xiaojun have also had their legal licenses suspended and revoked, respectively, for their defense of Hong Kong democracy protesters and other activists.  

Border controls are another arbitrary way for the CCP to punish activists. Wang Dan, a prominent leader of the 1989 democracy movement now living in exile in the U.S., was prevented from visiting his dying mother in China due to an entry ban imposed by the CCP. His mother, Wang Lingyun, passed away on Monday, alone in a Beijing hospital. Wang Dan shared his grief online, writing that “her greatest wish was that I would be able to come back to Beijing to be with her.” Exit bans impose similarly cruel restrictions. Zhang Qing, the wife of human rights activist Yang Maodong (also known as Guo Feixiong), appealed to Chinese authorities on Monday to let her husband leave China to visit her in the U.S. before she passes away from terminal cancer. In her open letter, she wrote, “Never could I imagine the Chinese authorities were capable of such inhumane cruelty – to keep him locked up when my life is coming to an end, it’s very shocking to me.”

Enabling some of these prosecutions is China’s opaque system of extralegal forced disappearance, Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), which has been heavily documented by Safeguard Defenders. Erin Hale at Al Jazeera reflected on the Chinese government’s increasing use of RSDL over the past decade

Following changes to Chinese criminal law in 2012, police now have had the right to detain anyone – foreign or Chinese – for up to six months at a designated location without disclosing their whereabouts. Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders say that as many as 27,208 to 56,963 people have gone through China’s RSDL system since 2013, citing data from the Supreme People’s Court and the testimony of survivors and lawyers.

[…] [Co-founder of Safeguard Defenders Michael] Caster estimated that in 2020 between 10,000 to 15,000 went through the system, up from just 500 in 2013.

[…] William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders, said since RSDL was first employed almost a decade ago, use of the extrajudicial detention system has changed from an exception in its early days to a more widely used tool.

“Before, when Ai Wei Wei was taken away, they had to make an excuse that it was really about his business, or a tax issue or something like that. So there’s this trend, a decade or two ago, where they would use a pretence to detain someone when the real reason was their public participation or their political views,” said Nee. “There was a fear that [RSDL] was going to make it more routine ‘legal,’ given a veneer of legality and legitimacy to it. And I think that’s been well borne out.” [Source]


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