Monday, October 3, 2022

Deepening Shadows Over Chinese Law

Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).

Chinese president Hu Jintao addressed a “study session” of leaders last week and called for new measures and policies of “social management.” His message foretells a tightening of controls over China’s population and over social protest. Although the speech may have been provoked by recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, brutal treatment of dissidents was already ongoing. It has become more intense and it will continue. A prominent civil rights lawyer, Mo Shaoping, recently spoke at a conference in Beijing on the status of lawyers at which he said that “our current system and government is not one that relies on rule of law, rather it relies on the law of the party.”

The Wall Street Journal earlier this month pointed to the beating of blind legal activist Cheng Guancheng, who is currently being held prisoner in his home illegally after serving a prison sentence (four years and six months) for ”damaging public property and obstructing traffic.” Chen managed to smuggle from his house a video in which he described the severe conditions of his house arrest and criticized the government’s repression. After the video was released he and his wife were beaten, and reporters trying to reach his village were threatened.

Some days later, police beat and arrested human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong and his wife after they met with others to discuss how they might help Mr. Chen. The Journal pointed out that the case was “not isolated,” and is part of a pattern of using violence on activists such as Ai Weiwei and other dissidents, especially when they use technology to mobilize support. Tang Jitian, another human rights lawyer, was abducted from his home on February 16th after attending the same meeting. Five other lawyers were seized last month and their whereabouts were unknown, according to an online report from China Human Rights Defenders.

Another report told of the expansion of “extended home confinement, abductions and in some cases assault or torture against a broadening array of perceived enemies.” One notable example of this is lawyer Ni Yulan, who helped Beijing residents fight forced demolitions occurring before the 2008 Olympics. She was disbarred, her own house was destroyed, and she was arrested and beaten so badly that she is permanently crippled. She was recently visited by US. Ambassador Jon Huntsman in her temporary quarters in a hotel.

Hu Jintao’s recent speech shows that the events in the Middle East have deepened the leadership’s concerns about popular unrest, especially because the empowerment of the crowds in Tunis and Cairo was massively strengthened by social media. Against this background, the likely significance of President Hu’s speech has to be considered for the consequences it signals. He invoked, in Party-speak, “factors conducive to harmony,” meaning heightened repression of activists and a general tightening of control. Presumably, too, this is what he meant by emphasizing the need to “build a socialist social management system with Chinese characteristics, aiming to safeguard people’s rights and interests, promote social justice, and sustain sound social order.”

The precise organizational implications of the improvement in “social management” that Hu called for will be spelled out in the days to come, but Hu said that it is necessary for the CCP and the government to “play the leading role” in a “mechanism for safeguarding the rights of the people.” The Xinhua report stated that Hu emphasized “the importance of information network management” and urged “improved management of the ‘virtual society’ and a better guidance of public opinions on the Internet.” To be sure, Hu also mentioned the need to “improve social service capacity at grass-roots level” and included the need to improve food, drug and work safety as well as “social order.” But soon after his speech on February19th, the party-state demonstrated the depths of its concern about Cairo-style activism and social stability.

After an anonymous online call for people to initiate a “Jasmine Revolution” on Sunday, February 20th was circulated on and Twitter in China, police deleted most of it, blocked searches for the word “Jasmine,’ and temporarily disabled text-messaging services. On that Sunday in Beijing there were apparently no obvious demonstrators on Wangfujing in the small crowd that appeared, but there were many policemen and journalists. Over the weekend, the police detained “dozens of activists.”

The speed with which the police acted reflected government fears of the power of social media. Government action also demonstrated the range of actions it could take to block protest, not only jailing dissidents and placing some under house arrest, but acting, as the Journal put it, “to control the flow of information without shutting it down completely.” The power to compel internet companies to remove “politically sensitive content” was amply demonstrated, as was the government’s determination to control the flow of information as well as the protest that it might somehow ignite.

The focus on controlling the media, including social networks and microblogs, should not obscure the unceasing government concern about the possibility that the “rights defense” (weiquan) lawyers might somehow ignite widening popular protest. The current anxieties about unrest have already been manifested in the repression of activist lawyers, and will undoubtedly continue. Lawyers and citizens who pursue rights formally granted to Chinese citizens could conceivably be deemed to veer close to the paranoid notion of “inciting subversion.” If so, those who assert legal rights could become targets of regime suppression, and the rule of law will suffer even more than it has in the past.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misidentified one of the Chinese lawyers reported abducted this month. It should be Tang Jitian, non Jiang Jitian as earlier written. Thanks to a reader for pointing out the error.

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Deepening Shadows Over Chinese Law


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