China’s show trial of rights activists driven by fear of liberal ideology

Clockwise from top left: Zhou Shifeng, Gou Hongguo, Zhai Yanmin and Hu Shigen during their trials in Tianjin, China. (Photo courtesy:  CCTV, via Associated Press)
Clockwise from top left: Zhou Shifeng, Gou Hongguo, Zhai Yanmin and Hu Shigen during their trials in Tianjin, China. (Photo courtesy: CCTV, via Associated Press)

(, Aug09, 2016) – To make a point of asserting the might of the communist party government and its intolerance of dissent, China carried out televised trials throughout last week of lawyers and rights activists and eventually sentenced all four to up to seven and half years in jail. All four men – Zhou Shifeng, Gou Hongguo, Hu Shigen and Zhai Yanmin – were shown on television meekly renouncing their activist past and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced, reported Aug 8.

The move appeared to be a more public phase of President Xi Jinping’s campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism, the report felt. The four were given relatively light sentences, convicted for subverting State power, apparently in exchange for their admission of guilt in intending to overthrow the communist party rule in China and expressing remorse for it.

Hu Shigen, a 61-year-old leader of an “illegal church”, was given 7.5 years, accused of having engaged in “anti-State activities” since the 1990s. Zhou Shifeng, a lawyer who formerly managed the Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, was jailed for seven years. Zhai Yanmin, an unemployed resident of Beijing, was given three years, with imprisonment suspended for four years. And entrepreneur Gou Hongguo received a suspended three-year sentence.

The court in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, found the four of having met to “establish a systematic ideology, method and steps” to subvert State power, said China’s official Xinhua news agency in a lengthy commentary carried also by the official website Aug 8.

By airing the confessions and claims of a sweeping anti-party coalition, President Xi’s administration was “putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot”, the report cited Ms Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, as saying.

The report noted that while subversion trials were not new in China, the intense publicity around these latest cases signified a shift. Chinese state-managed newspapers, television programmes and websites used the trials to offer a daily torrent of damning words against Western influence and liberal political ideas, it said.

The legal proceedings and the drumbeat of propaganda accompanying the trial process served the purpose of projecting the power of the state and casting human rights advocates as enemies, Ms Eva Pils, a legal scholar at King’s College London, who has long studied human rights lawyers in China, has said.

The four were among more than 200 lawyers and activists arrested during a widespread crackdown in July last year.

The report noted that taken together, the prosecutorial allegations of anti-government plotting against the four included virtually every cause that President Xi and his subordinates in the security services had identified as a threat: “die-hard” rights lawyers, activists adept at igniting online controversy, underground churches that defy government controls, disgruntled workers, “separatists” from Tibet and Xinjiang, and foreign groups supporting legal advocacy in China.

An undercurrent of fear is seen as having led the government of President Xi to use the instrument of legal force to humiliate and punish the lawyers and activist. This fear is seen as stemming from jitters about the economy as growth slows and debt grows, international friction over China’s territorial claims and Mr Xi’s general antipathy to Western influence, all of which have reinforced the party’s fears that public ire over corruption and official abuses could one day spring into outright rebellion with backing from abroad, the report noted.


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